A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte BondThe Fireborne Blade (The Fireborne Blade, #1) by Charlotte Bond
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dragons, fantasy
Series: Fireborne Blade #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim her honor.
It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.
Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.
A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.
Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

My Review:

The story of The Fireborne Blade initially appears to be a more traditional, or perhaps I should say scholarly, account of dragons and the slaying thereof by knights who generally think too much of their own prowess – after all, they are reporting on their own exploits and they slew a dragon!

But then the more scholarly, and slightly SFnal or at least technomagical aspects come to the fore. Because the knights have recorded those exploits, and the mage council gets to watch those recordings and critique the process – which ends in the knight’s death more often then the knights would care to admit.

Then the story shifts, not to reports of dragon-slayings past, but into the middle of what one disgraced knight is hoping will be a dragon-slaying present. With, hopefully for the knight, the acquisition of the titular Fireborne Blade, the redemption of her disgrace and the consequent reinstatement of her good standing.

So we follow along with that disgraced knight, Maddileh, as she wends her way through the dark and dangerous caverns that lead to the dragon’s lair, along with her mysteriously magical and not at all trusty squire, while in the background we learn how Maddileh ended up in her present predicament and why it is unlikely to achieve the result she desires.

Because in contests between knights and dragons, all those stories about previous dragon hunts show us – and should have shown her – that the odds ALWAYS favor the dragon. Which does not prevent the knight from doing their damndest to stack the deck in their favor.

Unless someone else has beaten them to it.

Escape Rating A-: Initially, this seemed like a rather traditional knight vs. dragon story, with one of two inevitable endings. Either the knight dies or the dragon does. Or occasionally both in a blaze of mutual glory. So there’s three inevitable endings.

But I knew it couldn’t be nearly that simple – and it wasn’t, and not just because the knight in this particular story was female. That may not be the way these stories used to always work, but it has been done before, and done well if not nearly often enough, for the past 40 years at least. (Tamora Pierce’s epic Song of the Lioness quartet began in 1983. For a more recent example, take a look at Spear by Nicola Griffith.)

Those weren’t the only stories it felt like this was calling back to, as the detached, pseudo-scientific nature of the critiques of previous knight’s performances and the cataloging thereof gave me hints of the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Still, it felt that way.

As we get the history of dragon hunting in this world, we get to understand that it’s even more dangerous than our own legends tell it, because it’s not just fire that the knights have to worry about. In fact, fire is pretty much the last thing they have to worry about, if it all, because for the dragon to breathe fire on them they have to get relatively up close and personal. Most don’t make it nearly that far.

Instead of being a story about killing or being killed by a dragon, this is a story about forging your own path against seemingly impossible odds, over and over and over again, no matter how much that deck is stacked against you. And has been, over and over and over.

And in the process of telling its story about the knight and the dragon, it asks some surprising questions about change vs stability and striking that balance, and makes that discussion personal in ways that change every single thing we thought we knew going in.

Which made for a completely fruit-basket-upset of an astonishing ending.

One final note, and a bit of a digression. If you remember the plot of the video game Final Fantasy X fondly, or at all, although the ending is very different, from a certain slightly twisted perspective Maddileh is Auron and the evil hierarch who turns out to be the villain of the piece is Maester Mika with all the same questions and a not all that different set of answers.

Which is really messing with my head a bit, because I was expecting that The Fireborne Blade was a standalone. It’s not. The second book in The Fireborne Blade series, The Bloodless Princes, will be coming in October – and I’m really, really curious to see how this manages to continue.