Sabira d’Deneith is a Sentinal Marshal in the city of Stormreach, spending her days dragging criminals in to face justice and drowning her sorrows at the local tavern. A series of horrific serial killings sends her back to the dwarven holds to catch the killer, and she thinks she knows who’s responsible – the same mysterious psycho who killed her partner eight years ago.
The Shard Axe has a plot that will be essentially familiar to anyone who enjoys thrillers and police procedural TV shows. Sabira is the prototypical cop haunted by the death of her partner, and the best parts of the story revolve around her investigations into some strange murders which may or not be related to her partner’s death. The novel’s title refers to the weapon Sabira wields (which has also become her nickname), an axe imbued with a magical dragonshard, earned in her earlier service among the dwarves.
While this is a tie-in novel to MMORPG Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), it’s not a “video game novel.” By that I mean that the plot and the scenes never feel like they were written to conform to the tropes of the game. I forgot that it was a DDO tie-in while I was reading it. While author Marsheila Rockwell has seeded it with references to creatures and places that will be familiar to DDO players, knowledge of the game (or even of Eberron in general) is not necessary to enjoy it.
I spoke with Rockwell about Sabira and The Shard Axe, so this is part review, part interview. It’s an interreview!
The first thing you notice about Sabira is that she’s not terribly likable. Within the first 30 pages or so, she commits the fantasy-world equivalent of police brutality, gets drunk on dwarven whiskey, and gets beat up over a gambling debt that she can’t really repay. “She’s spent eight years digging a hole for herself and the reader is seeing her as she finally hits bottom, which is the best place to start a tale of redemption,” said Rockwell.
The first half of the novel is basically Sabira floundering around Stormreach. She quits the marshals, drinks, tries to get mercenary work to pay off her debts, and mopes a lot about her dead partner. When she meets a marshal who was her partner’s protégé all those years ago, a romance is kindled between them. He’s also the one who convinces her to quit wallowing, rejoin the marshals, and head on back to the dwarf holds to solve this mystery: a whole lot of dead dwarves, most of whom ate their own eyeballs.
The setup makes a lot of sense – you need to see how pathetic Sabira can be to appreciate what she might later achieve. Unfortunately, I thought it went on a bit too long. The first half starts to feel a bit aimless, and the romance between Sabira and Elix is rather flaccid. This may have a lot to do with Sabira’s ambivalence, or, as Rockwell put it, “We are at our worst when we love ourselves the least, and if we don’t love ourselves, we’re in no position to accept love from others.”
Luckily, once Sabira gets into gear, so does the novel. The second half roars to life with a gonzo action scene featuring yrthaks, one of the weirdest and most overlooked D&D monsters, attacking some of Eberron’s signature airships. Sabira turns into a crazy action hero – and I mean crazy, as she shows little regard for her own safety. Rockwell’s vivid fight scenes are taut and crystal clear, and she explained why: “I think the real inspiration for my fight scenes is probably all the poorly written fight scenes I’ve read in other novels over the years. I hate not being able to envision or follow the action when I’m reading — it pulls me right out of the story. So I do my best to make sure every action in a fight is easy to envision, down to choreographing the scenes out with my husband and my eldest son.” And, I’m assuming, the yrthak she keeps in the back yard.
At the dwarven holds, Sabira gets into some classic whodunit sleuthing. She has to sneak into the dwarves’ forbidden library, connect the dots on dwarven genealogy and a strange geological phenomenon, and determine if any of it relates to the death of her partner. In the middle of all that, she has to defend the dwarf who’s been accused of the murders – the same dwarf Sabira and her partner were protecting when her partner was killed. With the exception of a strange courtroom scene that just didn’t hold together for me, things move along briskly with a good mix of action and detective work.
“Most of my influence in this area [mystery and crime writing] comes from non-fiction authors — in particular, former FBI profiler John Douglas — as well as the television shows based on their work (Criminal Minds and CSI are two favorites). I’m fascinated by both the physical and mental processes of identifying and tracking down criminals.”
Rockwell pulls off a classic mystery story ending, setting up the logic but never telegraphing the answer until the big reveal. A few dangling plot threads will connect to the follow-up novel, Skein of Shadows, an ebook only release coming in July. Skein of Shadows is not a direct sequel to The Shard Axe, but it does star Sabira (and her tumultuous past). It’s also tied to Wizards’ big Rise of the Underdark storyline.