Ensemble Fantasy: Born to the Blade by Marie Brennan, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, and Michael R. Underwood

Many people will not read Born to the Blade the way I did, in four hours and a single sitting. Born to the Blade is not, in fact, intended to be read that way: created by Michael R. Underwood (Geekomancy), and written by Underwood along with Marie Brennan (A Natural History of Dragons, Lightning in the Blood), Malka Older (Infomocracy, Null States) and Cassandra Khaw (Food of the Gods, Bearly a Lady), it’s the latest speculative fiction serial from Serial Box. Thirteen episodes, each about the length of a novelette, make it the equivalent of a rather long novel.

Structurally, Serial Box serials—and Born to the Blade is no exception—are shaped like 13-episode television shows. Each episode has its own internal arc, and each contributes to the overall arc of the season. Though, like several television series, Born to the Blade doesn’t exactly provide a satisfactory resolution in a single season: this is a serial in at least two senses, since the first season ends with the previous status quo disrupted, in disequilibrium, teetering towards—

Well, we’ll have to wait to find out, won’t we?

Born to the Blade is set in a world of floating landmasses, suspended above the Mists below. Bladecraft—a kind of magic that involves carving symbols with a sword that then have a physical effect—is common, and so is duelling to settle disputes or points of order. To be born on a specific landmass conveys certain advantages in terms of birthright abilities: the Mertikans (with personal names influenced by Rome and a name that recollects other imperial powers) remember their past lives; the people of Kakute, now a Mertikan possession, can speak to their ancestors; the Rumikans can change between male and female bodies; the Vanians (their names Greek-influenced, and with a culture suspiciously reminiscent of the Amazon myth) have special abilities with endurance; the people of Quloo can detect aerstone, the stone that holds up the landmasses and can be mined to support airships. And so on: this is far from a completely list. The world feels epic, and the opening episode’s prologue primes us to expect epic narratives: the fate of nations, legitimacy, war, heritage, all that grand old-fashioned grist for the fantasy mill.

Born to the Blade spends most of its time with the diplomatic service.

The island of Twaa-Fei is a place where diplomacy is conducted and disputes are settled between the nations through the institution of the Warders’ Circle, a council of representatives from each of the major powers that negotiate with other (and occasionally duel each other) like a rather smaller and more physical version of the UN Security Council. There are six Warders when Born to the Blade opens: immediately after an explosive prologue, we meet Michiko, on her way to Twaa-Fei to be the junior (understudy) Warder for Kakute, determined to prove herself to Kakute’s Mertikan overlords. Travelling on the same airship is Kris Denn, a young person from Rumika who’s travelling to Twaa-Fei to issue a formal challenge to the Warders in order to get Rumika a representative in the Circle. Kris must win their acceptance or defeat them in bladecraft duels, or Rumika will continue without representation.

The first to welcome Kris to Twaa-Fei, and their largest supporter in their quest, is Ojo, the senior Warder for Quloo. Quloo has mined too much of the aerstone that keeps the nations floating: it is slowly sinking, and desperately needs more aerstone, all the more because it needs to resist the expansionist Mertikans. Kris will find, eventually, that in the world of politics and diplomacy even their friends cannot truly be trusted, for Rumika has developed a way to refine aerstone so that less of it is required to produce the same effect, and once they let that fact slip…

Well, things get very complicated, very fast.

Born to the Blade has a large ensemble cast, but Michiko, Kris, and Ojo are the ones who stand out most: the characters who change most, and whose choices drive most of the serial’s tension. They, like all the characters, are richly drawn, complicated people, in a complex and fascinating world that is filled with cool shit (bladecrafting is a cool and very visual piece of worldbuilding magic: it would translate well to a fancy television show with a large budget for wire fu). The writers draw a plausible, believable political clusterfuck in the process of happening, and the people who’re torn between loyalties as a result of the sudden outbreak of war.

There are some secrets whose edges are nodded at in season one of Born to the Blade, and some emotional arcs that receive a little resolution. But this feels much like the first volume in a trilogy or five-book series: it’s more an introduction to the world, the characters, and the stakes than it is a complete narrative in its own right.

The things that annoyed me about Born to the Blade are the same things that annoy me with every serial—or with almost every long series, for that matter. It possesses at least as many things that delighted me, including a willingness to play with culture and the ability to depict collegiate friendship along with professional (and sometimes personal) antagonism in the miniature diplomatic circuit of the Warders in Twaa-Fei. Born to the Blade is enjoyable and immensely readable, and if I had the opportunity to read the second season right now, I’d take it.

Episodes 1-4 of Born to the Blade are available now from Serial Box, with new episodes arriving every week.
Read an excerpt from the series here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It’s a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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