Dark Jenny is my first book by Alex Bledsoe, which also means it’s my first book in the Eddie LaCrosse series. That series – whose main character is essentially a hard-boiled detective in a fantasy world – had a couple of books behind it already by the time Dark Jenny came out, which means that I’m definitely missing some references and backstory scattered throughout the book. And yet, by and large, I don’t think any of that quite mattered to me – what I got was a really engaging, fun, enjoyable adventure story, although one that drew a little too heavily on its sources for me.
Dark Jenny is mainly a bit of backstory on Eddie, who spends most of the book at a tavern recounting a story of his adventures for a captive audience. That story involves LaCrosse’s journey to Grand Braun, a now-peaceful country that’s ruled by King Marcus Drake. Drake took a wild country, one largely composed of battling tribes, and consolidated the rule into a throne, supported by the Knights of the Double Tarn. But when someone poisons one of the Knights, LaCrosse gets drawn into the situation, and has to unravel a complicated tale of power struggles, religion, trust, and honor.
If the setup for this novel sounds a little like King Arthur to you, well, it should. Bledsoe doesn’t really make much effort to pretend he’s not playing with Arthurian legends (even the novel’s epigraph foreshadows this nicely), and by and large, that’s okay. The whole idea of Dark Jenny is to realize that even legends have their shadows, and that no hero is truly a great person – we all have our shadows. The downside, though, is that Bledsoe draws on those Arthurian legends so heavily that a lot of the big “reveals” of the story won’t come as much of a surprise if you know the legends in any depth (pretty much the instant Arthur’s nephew is introduced, a lot of you – like me – will know a lot of backstory that’s yet to come out).
That being said, none of it really detracts from how much fun the book is. Bledsoe’s got a fun style, and LaCrosse is a good narrator, bringing wisecracks, cynical wisdom, and a detective’s mindset to the story that’s unfolding. And the idea to approach the Arthurian legends as a mystery ends up being an inspired one, allowing Bledsoe to play with clues and reveals in a way that gives them far more emotional impact than they might have had originally. More than that, there’s his wonderfully askew takes on some of the key players, especially Merlin, whose counterpart here feels closer to The Dude than he does an ancient wizard.
Beyond his offbeat take on the legends, Bledsoe brings out some good thematic depth from his reframing of the legends as a noir tale, allowing it to become more about morality, what we sacrifice for greater ideals, and how even the best of us can be corrupted – all perfect ideas to bring into a noir novel, even one with swords and (sort-of) wizards. If I have a grumble with Dark Jenny, it’s that it leans so heavily on the Arthurian legends that I don’t really have a sense of Bledsoe’s own gift for plotting; that being said, I enjoyed this enough that I’m definitely checking out more of Bledsoe’s books, and maybe more of the Eddie LaCrosse series as well.