The Lascar’s Dagger is a series-debuting entry by Australian author Glenda Larke, and introduces us to Saker, a priest-cum-spy and the twists and turns his life takes after a bizarre interaction with a foreign Lascar and his apparently magical dagger. With a healthy dose of religion and politics, alongside a few daring escapes and plenty of intrigue, The Lascar’s Dagger still manages to fall a little flat, on the back of a few uninteresting and shallow takes on tropes, but is still a passable read with some good potential for future books.
Faith will not save him.
Saker appears to be a simple priest, but in truth he’s a spy for the head of his faith. Wounded in the line of duty by a Lascar sailor’s blade, the weapon seems to follow him home. Unable to discard it, nor the sense of responsibility it brings, Saker can only follow its lead.
The dagger puts Saker on a journey to distant shores, on a path that will reveal terrible secrets about the empire, about the people he serves, and destroy the life he knows. The Lascar’s dagger demands a price, and that price will be paid in blood.
I think my primary issue with The Lascar’s Dagger is just how generally unlikeable nearly every character is. Our hero, the priest who is actually a spy, is hilariously incompetent over and over. In a more ‘real’ setting like say A Song of Ice and Fire, he’d have been caught and executed probably a dozen times just in this one novel. Yet nowhere is this actually acknowledged as part of his character in a way we’re supposed to like or appreciate. He causes grief to his superior because he keeps acting without thinking and nearly exposes the whole fact that the priesthood has spies creeping around government, yet he’s never really punished for it either. He just keeps being presented as a great resource for the church, screws up, and keeps going anyway. If he were acting like he was in over his head, he’d have been easier to identify with, but as it stood, he was just a bit of a twit.
Then we have the thinly-veiled socio-political message that exists in the form of the Princess Mathilda. She takes in a woman on the run for a completely justified murder, and makes her a lady-in-waiting. This woman basically has nothing at all besides what the Princess deigns to remember to give her, but since her alternative is basically execution, she has to just deal with it. Meanwhile the Princess is faced with a state marriage to a man much older than her whom she doesn’t love, and just does not shut up about how horribly she is treated because she’s a woman.
Now, forced marriage is not good, for sure, and while that’s just how state weddings go that doesn’t mean she should meekly accept it ‘as a woman’ and she’s right to be upset. But we get to watch the wealthy, politically powerful Princess who wants for nothing besides “her freedom” complain to the peasant woman who ACTUALLY wants for -everything- INCLUDING her freedom and some justice for the crimes inflicted on her. It sort of completely ruined what could have been a strong feminist message. If Sorrel (the lady-in-waiting-in-question) had been the one who was working on convincing the Princess that no amount of wealth and privilege should make her happy, to accept her loss of autonomy because of her gender, and slowly brought her around, we might have had something. Instead, Mathilda goes so far as to blackmail Sorrel into doing things she doesn’t want to do, because of the secret that she knows while bemoaning her own lack of ‘freedom.’
I have one significant criticism of Mathilda to want to discuss, but it does contain spoilers, so if you’re hoping to avoid them just skip the following paragraph and rejoin us at ‘Issues identifying with the characters aside’ in the next paragraph. Thank you.
One of the plot hooks we get from Mathilda is that she is quite attractive, and our priest-spy Saker is smitten with her. At one point, when the state marriage looks like it’s going to go through, she decides her “only” out is to become spoiled so the marriage won’t happen. She seduces Saker, has sex with him, and then goes and claims he raped her, for which he is basically sentenced to death. This is our “feminist message” character. She takes malicious advantage of somebody who has romantic feelings for her, lies about being raped to get herself out of the duty of every royal throughout all of history, and then just lets the victim of this be sent off to be killed. I don’t care how oppressed you feel with your castle, and your servants, and your unlimited supply of money, and time to spend however you want. In exchange for the knowledge that your wedding vows are a political object, you don’t get to try to justify, in any way, seducing somebody and then faking a rape because you’re upset about the reality of royalty. Mathilda has so much more than ANY other woman in this entire world that isn’t a Queen, so having that ‘it’s horrible to be a woman in this society’ message coming from her, and then having her do this just ruined it completely for me.
Issues identifying with the characters aside, the story itself is pretty good. It ends up being a fairly typical ‘oh look, the politics and the religion clash, and some people are putting their own success ahead of what’s best for everybody’ story, which is literally every story to do with politics and religion, but it’s told well and has some interesting elements. The magic system in this world is also fairly interesting. Some people have ‘witcheries,’ which are essentially one particular magic power. Whether it be the ability to disguise yourself, or the ability to talk to birds, the possible types of witchery seem pretty open-ended, without making anybody an unstoppably powerful magician to menace the world.
There’s also an element of issues of race centered around the Lascar, whose dagger gets front billing on the cover. He is one of a number of island peoples in a setting similar to what our Caribbean looks like. Rich in spices, and lots of beautiful animals, and rich in being lumped together into one “place” by the idiot white folks who don’t even understand that they’re dealing with a number of distinct cultures. Ardhi, the Lascar character we spend a good amount of time with, is quite intelligent, well aware of the way those around him view him and his people, and driven to accomplish his purposes with much more effectiveness than Saker ever manages.
Overall, I’m interested to see what happens in the later books. The characters here, while somewhat unlikeable or downright offensive, are at least not flat and boring and there is the possibility for future development to mature them a little. The overtones of race and gender politics were a little heavy-handed, but they’re still a worthwhile message. For those readers who are familiar with the analogy, the messages here were more of a Star Trek: The Original Series style as opposed to the more subtle and nuanced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine level of communicating a moral. If the next book eases off the clue-by-four a little, and just lets us exist in this world to experience the injustices for ourselves, it will be a lot more effective on that front.
Dan received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from Orbit via NetGalley