The Course of Blades
By Davuan Sanders
It's been a long time since I've covered any of Mr. Sanders' work in this review series. I'm glad I was able to get back to it. Let me course provide my disclaimer here, I know Mr. Sanders, we've worked together and we still work for the same company. I've known him since 2014 and I found about these books by talking to him at work. With that out of the way…
Mr. Sanders has lived in Phoenix since 2002, where he moved after earning a degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He started writing novels after the 2008 great recession forced him to step away from architecture. He has since then written 3 novels, a variety of short stories and scripts and found time to start a family. He is currently the proud father of twins, who hopefully will not drive him mad in the near future with games of “why” in stereo. All of this done while avoiding the relentless Phoenix summer and also working at a day job. Before I go any further, while I will not spoil the events of the 3rd books, there will be spoilers for the 1st and 2nd novel. You have been warned.
The Course of Blades is the third novel of the Seedbearer Prince series. In the last two books, we met Dayn, a young man growing up on the world of Shard. Shard is a farm world that provides food to many other worlds in the Belt. Dayn doesn't dream of being a farmer however, he dreams of being a courser. Coursers are people who travel the belt using grappling line, near magical life support technology and a special suit. To be blunt about it, these guys spider-man their way from world to world, to bring news and carry small but time sensitive goods and messages. Frankly this might be the most metal occupation I've ever seen in science fiction or fantasy. Dayn has been training for this in secret and in his secret training that comes into contact with the Voidwalkers, the soldiers of Thar'Kur, a world far away from the belt shrouded in mystery and terror. In his battle to prevent the Voidwalkers from destroying his world, he came into contact and became the bearer of an ancient artifact known as a Seed. A Seed has the power to create life, bringing forth plants from barren soil, creating water where there was none... It also the power to destroy life utterly. It all depends on the user of the artifact, who is known as the Seedbearer. This thrusts Dayn into great events and entangles him with the Ring, a great fortress satellite that carries the inter world orders of the Defenders, military fighters who seek to maintain peace in the Belt and fight the Voidwalkers, the Preceptors, who serve as the scholars and scientists of the Ring and the Consorts who serve as diplomats, trying to keep the people of the Belt from killing each other resources. It also forces him to learn the awful truth of the Belt, that it's actually the remains of a single world, cracked apart in an attack by Thar'Kur and only capable of maintaining life through the use of powerful technology that over half the population doesn't even remember exists. Even bountiful Shard, his home is nothing more than a crumbling fragment of what once was.
This isn't even the worse of it, Dayn is taken prisoner in the 2nd book and tortured and tormented by the Voidwalkers, especially by their mental ability known as the Thrall. While he is able to free himself and through alliances and his connection to the Seed inflict a powerful military defeat on the Voidwalkers, protecting one of the last ships able to take a large group of people to a new world beyond the shattered remains of his own. Dayn is still suffering the mental and emotional fall out of his captivity and abuse. Worse, his trauma is infecting the Seed itself and making more and more prone to destruction and poisoning as opposed to being a source of Life and Protection. To pile error upon ill fortune, the powers that be within the Ring are incredibly disinclined to give Dayn the space and independence needed to heal and find his center again. This is one of the biggest mistakes the characters in the novel are making, speaking from experience, finding the space and time to heal after an ordeal is incredibly important and if you don't get that... Well then you don't heal and in fact get worse. The novel doesn't shy from this or from showing us the consequences of those mistakes, in fact I would say consequences are kind of the theme of the novel here.
The forces seeking to use Dayn are shown to us mostly in the character of the Lord Ascendant, the ruler of the Ring from the Veiled Throne.. The Lord Ascendant is an driven, intelligent woman, determined to use Dayn and the Seed as an instrument to unite the Belt under her direction and is incredibly unwilling to give Dayn any input into that bluntly. This becomes a problem as Dayn is drawn into the murky politics of The Ring and finds him disapproving of a lot of their decisions. To the point of having an incredibly dramatic confrontation with the lady in her own throne, which if nothing else shows us how brave she is and how committed Dayn is to holding to his own sense of Justice. It was interesting in that I could see both sides point but in the same time, the Ring is not very trusted by the people it protects and the reasons for the confrontation really help display why the Ring is not trusted.
I have to admit these are two strong points to the book, Mr. Sanders does not shy away from examining the consequences of the various character's decisions, alliances are frayed here, friendships ruptured and loyalties strained. On the flip side, we also begin to see a lot of the why's of the setting, why is it so hard to unite the worlds of the Belt, why is the Ring distrusted, we get a good chunk of the answer right here in this book and I enjoy that a great deal. I am going to toss out that trying to be a trusted authority when you sit behind a Veiled Throne is going to be a problem, as most folks are going to see nothing good in a ruler who hides his or her face. While there are reasons for veiling the throne (one idea given was to try and prevent people from having too much personal loyalty to the person sitting on the throne), they honestly kind of ring hollow to me, but that may be my dislike of the Lord Ascendant talking honestly. As she simply will not stop trying to pressure or control Dayn in one fashion or another. Dayn in turn cannot help but resist this as he has his own ideas about what is right and how to help the Belt and I can't blame him for holding to that.
All of this, is incredibly unhelpful to Dayn's mental state, even as he struggles to pull himself together and help the people of the Belt in his own way. The question of Dayn's mental health. Which even he can't answer with any authority at this point is the main question of the book, one that his friends, allies and enemies will be attempting to answer. Because while Dayn has inflicted a major injury on their efforts to subvert and damage the belt, they're still in the fight and they have plans to hit back just as hard if not harder. If Dayn is to broken to defend himself or worse, so mixed up that he ends up being an asset to the Voidwalkers, then the entire Belt may be doomed. On the flip side, even if Dayn can keep it together and fight back against the Voidwalkers, he may end up doing more damage to himself and corrupting his connection to the Seed beyond redemption.
It's not just the struggle against Thar’Kur that drives the plot however, as Dayn gets a shot at living his dream in the midst of all this. Dayn not only gets to course in the torrent (the fragmented parts of the Belt between livable fragments) but he gets to do in the Course of Blades, the competitive coursing event that takes place as part of the Belt's version of the Olympics. People from all the Belt come to compete in a variety of events and sports and to watch others do the same. There Dayn meets a colorful assortment of characters from across the Belt and gets to see the problems of the Belt in miniature. No one really trusts each other, everyone has stuff that other people need but for various reasons trades are difficult to do at best. The met and greet between the various Coursers, men and women who throw themselves into space to travel to other fragments of a shattered world, is really interesting. Between the Course of Blades itself, where Dayn races across a small asteroid field against over a dozen professionals and the battles against the Void Walkers we get a lot of action here mixed in a fair amount of political intrigue and even moral considerations that despite the character's insistence, do actually have a fair amount of gray in there. Problems such as it is a wise thing to delve to deeply into the technology and tactics of a morally unsound people? How far can you go using those same weapons and tactics without becoming the thing you're fighting? Mr. Sanders approaches these questions without getting lost his own navel and avoids giving us any hard or fast answers.
The worlds of the Seedbearing Prince are incredibly fantastical and exotic but Mr. Sanders populates those worlds with characters that are very real and solid. Dayn is person under a lot stress who isn't allowed to heal and we see real consequences and reactions from that. The Defender Nassir and the Preceptor Lucas are constantly finding themselves trapped between their individual sense of right and wrong and their responsibilities to both the Belt at large and the Ring as an organization. This book is darker and full of more uncertainty than the past two books but it's a logical change of tone in the story as events start to catch up to the characters and their actions come back to haunt them. I will note that you need to read the past two books for any of this story to make sense to you and that does impact my grade a bit. That said, the book itself does tell a complete story and bring us to a satisfying conclusion, which can be hard to do a continuing series. I love this setting, I like Dayn as a main character and I enjoy most of the supporting characters (even the ones I dislike) and I look forward to seeing book 4 hit the presses. Because of this I am giving The Course of Blades by Davaun Sanders a B+. Read the first two books but have no fear that this book will let you down, it's a worthy continuation of a good series.