V-Con is a science fiction convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. I went for the first time this year, and met a very nice author named Dave Duncan. I'd heard about his "King's Blades" books, but they never really jumped out at me as something to try. However, since I was there and found out how great he was, I decided to take the plunge when I was in the Dealer's Room, and thus purchased The Gilded Chain, the first book in the "King's Blades" series. Now that I've read it, I'm sorry that I didn't sooner. Duncan's writing is superb, and the book held me riveted for hours on end.
The King's Blades are bound to the king via a magical ceremony. Whomever the king says should receive the services of the Blade attends the ceremony and sticks the Blade's sword through his heart. Assuming everything goes well, the Blade survives and is forever tied to his master. He's also bound to the king, but the master comes first. Durendal has taken the name of one of history's most honored Blades, but he finds himself, through circumstance, bonded to a hopeless fop of a noble who has wicked things in his heart. But his destiny may not be completely tied to this idiot, and Durendal finds he has to navigate his life's path through treachery, adventure, and a horrible responsibility of possibly betraying the king that he had so longed to serve. One thing's for sure: Durendal's life will never be dull, from the age of 14 onward, when he is admitted to the Blades' guildhall. But how long can he survive?
One of the panels I attended at V-Con was on swordplay and how to include it in your stories. Duncan was one of the panelists, along with a master swordsman who runs a swordsmanship school here in Vancouver. This other panelist greatly praised Duncan's descriptions in this book in particular, as well as his subsequent books. I have to agree with him, because the descriptions of the various fighting styles are simply wonderful. Duncan claims not be an expert in the field, so I have to admire his research. Each fight, and there are many, is vividly described, yet he avoids the tedium that some authors fall into when they want to show off their knowledge. Instead, his research informs his writing, so that the reader gets more of the feel of what's going on and is simply entranced.
In addition to Duncan's wonderful prose (which is more than just swordplay), his plotting in The Gilded Chain is first-rate. The idea of the Blades is masterful, creating a web of honor and obligations that entangle almost anybody who isn't assigned to a far-away station. Blades find themselves caught up in political machinations, and the twisted loyalties to king and master can sometimes make any Blade want to just end it all. The binding to the master is so much that the Blades get physically ill if they allow any harm to come to their masters, and must die in an attempt to save the master's life, even if there's no hope. Durendal finds himself in this situation a couple of times, and the emotions that go through him are extremely interesting.
Even better is the plotting of this specific book, which leads the reader throughout Durendal's life. Each of the first few major sections of the book begins with a chapter in the "modern day," when Durendal is an old chancellor and suffering through some political intrigue of his own. Slowly, Durendal's history catches up to that plot, and we see how the disparate episodes of Durendal's life that Duncan presents to us ties in with what's going on now. The final revelation of what is going on is horrifying and Duncan vividly described how torn Durendal is between his loyalty to the king and his certainty that he must stop the king from actions that are not the actions of the man Durendal has known all these years.
Duncan's characterization skills are also excellent. We see Durendal grow through all of his experiences. The king is well done, showing his temper and arrogance but also his compassion at times, especially where Durendal is concerned. Even as you don't agree with all of his actions, you can see why Durendal is loyal to him even when his magical bond is released. The other characters are given enough to fulfill their story roles, alternately solid (Quarrel, the Blade assigned to Durendal late in his life) or shallow (the innkeeper of the place where Durendal and his companions stay in Samarinda. None of them seem out of place, and all of them are interesting.
The only fault I can find with The Gilded Chain is that the ending, as engrossing as it is, does wrap up a bit too nicely. I would have liked it if there were a few more consequences for Durendal after what he did. On the other hand, the epilogue brings the story full circle and is extremely fitting, thus excusing the ending itself.
I loved The Gilded Chain and am cursing myself that it took me eight years (it was originally published in 1998) to finally decide to read this series that I had heard so much about. Rest assured, it won't be eight years before I read the second book. If you like fantasy at all, you have to read this book.