Fantasy is full of clever assassins, both working for the authorities and against them. They may be dour and sarcastic or grinning and joyful (despite the dark nature of their jobs). Whether they work for a shadowy guild or run solo, assassins are a staple, and Anishinnabe-kwe writer Melissa Blair used that character trope to challenge some of the traditional notions of colonialist narratives with her debut novel, A Broken Blade.
In A Broken Blade, Keera is the most notorious, terrifying assassin in Elverath. As the King’s Blade, she hunts down traitors to the throne, even though the throne and the government behind it consider Halflings like Keera abominations. Halflings are property of the Crown, denied citizenship due to their elven heritage after elves were banished from the kingdom. Although Keera is the king’s favorite assassin, she is nothing more than a tool to those in power. As she hunts down a danger even more notorious than she is—a person known as the Shadow, who actively plots against the Crown—she learns that there’s more out there than the life she’s been given, and she has to decide who or what it is that she’ll fight for.
Originally self-published (Blair, a BookToker, sent other BookTokers advance copies with a scavenger hunt to let them identify her), Blair’s debut novel is now out in a new edition and available to a much broader audience at bookstores everywhere.
We got a chance to talk with Blair about reinventing old fantasy tropes to deliver a new message—and a fantastic new adventure.
Paste Magazine: Your novel problematizes the familiar trope of the fantasy assassin, joining books like C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken, among others, in looking at what it means to work for people who have deliberately oppressed the main character’s own culture and heritage. What do you think is lasting about the assassin archetype that makes it so fun to revisit? Why was it important to you to bring the anti-colonialism aspect into your story?
Melissa Blair: I think the assassin archetype is one readers and writers are continually drawn to because it’s so often used as a symbol for justice and righteousness. These narratives are often about characters seeking vengeance against villainous people or protecting others from those villainous people. Their morality, or lack of it, is in the balance while they’re forced to make unimaginable decisions. These are stories about the choices we make as individuals and how one decides what is right or just. It’s a powerful story. I’m not surprised people are drawn to it again and again.
It’s also why I think it works so well in an anti-colonial story. Colonialism has always weaponized these narratives—twisting perceptions of justice, righteousness, and morality in the favor of the colonizer and then telling those stories again and again until it feels like the truth. Bringing in the anti-colonial element takes the assassin narrative from a singular view of morality to a broader, more collective one. The assassin is no longer the weapon of the tale, the system oppressing her is.
Paste: Keera struggles with alcoholism; what do you think that situation brings to her character? How do you hope readers will see her difficulties with addiction?
Blair: For me Keera’s alcoholism is a necessary part of her character. She, and the other Halflings, have lived through generations of ongoing colonization, and that does not come without devastating impacts to one’s mental and physical wellness. On top of that, Keera is forced to take an active role in the violent oppression of her people. Writing a character in that position, who is also isolated and didn’t have a vice, just wasn’t realistic. That pain would have been too much for anyone to bear on their own, and unfortunately for Keera, she didn’t have many people she could lean on. Part of her journey in A Broken Blade is finding a community to lean on for the very first time.
I hope readers will see the truth behind Keera’s drinking: she’s in pain and wracked with guilt. Alcohol helps her numb those emotions, but a major part of her story is going to finally be working through them. Her alcoholism won’t disappear, just like her trauma can’t disappear, but reconnecting with her people and culture will help her manage both.
Paste: When you began the worldbuilding process for Elverath, what were the core pieces you knew from the start? What elements of the worldbuilding surprised you?
Blair: I knew that the land was going to be lush with magic and that magic would exist in every living thing on the continent. I also knew that the societies of the Elverin and the King would be different in almost every way. The kingdom would be a hierarchical society informed by violent patriarchy and extraction. The Faeland would be a communal society informed by social responsibility and sustainability. How exactly those societies put their worldviews into practice was a surprise to me, and discovering the various layers to that as I drafted was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this series.
Paste: Of your cast of characters, who would you most like to sit down with for a meal?
Blair: If they’re cooking, then Syrra for sure. If not, then I’d have to pick my favorite character which would be Nikolai.
Paste: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
Blair: Read broadly, engage critically, and write the story that keeps you up at night.
Paste: What plans do you have for the future of the Halflng Saga?
Blair: I can’t give it away! But I will say that readers should be ready to explore the history of Elverath, meet some fun new characters, and hopefully not be too angry with me.
A Broken Blade is available now.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.