Book Review: Bloody Spade, by Brittany M. Willows

by Bren B. | 01/21/2022

Have you ever read a book where you’re about a quarter of the way through and you’ve already determined that it is now one of your all-time favorite books and that you’re going to recommend it to absolutely every single one of your friends and anyone who is looking for book recommendations? Well, if you haven’t had that experience then I cannot wait until you read Bloody Spade, by Brittany M. Willows, so you can experience that feeling just like I did:

A girl full of heart
A thief touched by darkness
A boy with a fiery temper
An unwitting servant of evil

The era of magic was once thought to be a myth, but after the Reemergence ushered forces both dark and light into the mundane world, it has since become a harsh reality. Now those affected by this strange power—a specialized group of Empowered called Jokers, known collectively as Cardplay—must protect their world from the darkness that threatens to consume it, all the while fighting for equality in a society clinging to normalcy.

But the Reemergence was only the beginning.

When another influx occurs on the seventh anniversary of that fateful event, an unfortunate encounter at ground zero lands Iori Ryone, a teenage boy in possession of a corrupt and legendary magic, in the care of recent Joker graduate Ellen Amelia Jane. From him, she learns the Reemergence may not have been the inevitable natural disaster it first seemed.

Someone is trying to tear down the barrier that separates the magical realms from the mundane. The question is, can Cardplay stop them before it’s too late

Bloody Spade is the first installment in an urban fantasy duology that follows a cat-eared thief and a spirited girl as they try to navigate his wild magic, her hotheaded brother, a sinister plot, and the feelings they’re developing for each other.

The back of the book touts that it is “[a]n anime-inspired urban fantasy novel suitable for fans of A Darker Shade of Magic or This Savage Song, or anime such as D.Gray-Man, Shugo Chara, or Pandora Hearts.”And y’all – it DELIVERS. Bloody Spade had me hooked from the moment I started reading and had me cursing my busy schedule because all I wanted to do was devour this book. Like, start an episode of a multi-season Netflix show and binge the entire thing in one weekend level of wanted to devour this book.

Long time readers of The Queerblr know this about me, but if you’re new here–I am not a person who cries often. Now, Bloody Spade did not render me to actual tears, like Cute Mutants Vol 2: Young, Gifted and Queer, by SJ Whitby did but there were several moments where I felt my heart strings tug and tears well in my eyes, just never loosed onto the screen of my e-reader. And because of such, I, in a desperate attempt to deal with said heartstring tugs, posted the following things:

I would have posted more about said feelings but I became so engrossed in the book that I barely looked at anything except the kindle app on my e-reader. So, what was it about this book that had me so enamored with it and want to grab everyone by the collar and tell them to read it? Well, let me tell yo

Let’s start with the characters. Willows has a large cast of characters in Bloody Spade. So many characters, in fact, that in the beginning of the book I wished I had an appendix to keep track of everyone (spoiler alert – there is one*, I just didn’t see it until I finished the book). The sheer number of characters on the page was a little overwhelming at first but it became abundantly clear that each character was well thought out and eventually I was able to keep them all in order. Not every character introduced has an arc, but many do, especially the four main perspective characters. Each arc is unique, highly personal to them, and has such raw emotional moments that the reader might not expect from their original character architypes.

*There is an appendix in the back of the book that has a list of characters, organizations, terms, and locations. The appendix would have come in handy while I was reading but I was reading an electronic version. If you have a hard time keeping track of a big cast of characters, I’d recommend getting comfy with your e-readers bookmark settings or purchasing a paperback version.

Not only do the characters have depth and range, there is so much queer representation in this book that it is hard to keep track (in the best possible way). There is aromantic, asexual, demisexual, pansexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, and non-standard pronoun (xe/xem/xyr) representation. And I am honestly probably forgetting some. The cast is unapologetically queer, like stated before, but at no point is the narrative, character development, or plot contingent on someone’s orientation or questioning of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Characters are wholly, authentically themselves and the world that Willows has built, as far as I could tell, did not give a single care about individuals’ orientations or gender expression. The world felt inclusive and saying “her wife” or “my grandpa’s husband” were common phrases that no one batted an eyelash toward. Bloody Spade felt like the peak example of “write the world you want to see.”

There is so much queer representation in the book that I found myself actually having to refresh my memory on one or two of the terms used for characters’ orientations. And to me, that isn’t a bad thing. I will say, though, that it might be a small barrier for some readers who aren’t as versed in LGBTQIA+ terminology. For instance—the book refers to Ellen spinning a black ring around her middle finger a few times and it is framed in the narrative in such a way that the detail seems important. Not all readers will know, though, that a black ring on a middle finger is significant to large parts of the ace community. But because the narrative doesn’t depend on the reader understanding those terms (because the book isn’t a romance) it is a moot point in the end. When Ellen’s orientation comes up in the second half of the book it is only because Iori is trying to figure out his feelings without crossing any unspoken boundaries with her because he knows through various conversations that Ellen is on the ace-spectrum. But really, other than that, it isn’t mentioned. And I loved the subtly in how Willows was able to establish Ellen’s orientation without a whole scene devoted to explaining it or coming out to Iori. Willows lays the ground work by including the black ring signifier—and if you know, you know, and it all makes sense. But if you aren’t privy to that, then the importance of the ring is eventually explained.

As mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed that Bloody Spade was unapologetically queer. But that enjoyment was second only to how Willows wrote the prose of the book. As stated on the back of the book, it’s an anime inspired story. Anime is visually intensive, especially any anime that contains fight sequences. The way that Willows captured the illustrative movement in her prose made me so desperately wish that I was watching the story unfold as an animated story or as a graphic novel. When I first started reading, the book reminded me heavily of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood combined with RWBY. My anime knowledge is limited, so to a more seasoned anime connoisseur it might remind them of other shows. Regardless of what anime Bloody Spade does or doesn’t remind the reader of, it delivers on its source material inspiration through the illustrative prose that Willows uses to describe scenery, character emotions, battles, and even “transformation sequences” when characters activate their fighting apparel.

Seriously if Bloody Spade was made into an anime, you’d binge the whole season in a day and immediately take to social media begging for the next season. In fact, Willows has a Kickstarter campaign right now for Bloody Spade: Companion Artbook & Collector’s Edition. The Kickstarter campaign ends on February 3rd and the rewards look amazing! If you haven’t already checked it out, you absolutely should. Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you get back.

This is not a paid advertisement for the campaign. I am spreading the word for selfish reasons because I want to hold the Artbook & Collector’s edition in my little grabby hands. So go check it out and back it if you’re feeling fancy!

Beyond the inspiration behind the prose, the craft in how the story was composed and the plot revealed was quite refreshing for me as a reader. The first act of the book follows two characters, Iori Ryone and Ellen Jane. Starting in Act Two, the POV’s of the book start to include two additional characters that didn’t have POV chapters in act one. And the POV switches didn’t match any discernable pattern like many multi-POV stories typically do. And I really liked that for Bloody Spade. It helped the reader get a better understanding of the world setting, of the stakes of the reality that the protagonists live with, and it made those characters arcs I mentioned earlier that much more satisfying. It also helped in the tension of the story, though the tension didn’t need help. There were always several threads that Willow was interweaving through the narrative and I often caught myself engrossed in what was happening on page but still wanting to know the conclusion to an interaction that happened one or two chapters previously.

AND DID I MENTION that Bloody Spade has an extensive content warning list in the beginning of the book? I know I didn’t but I’m gonna mention it now! It does and I am absolutely here for content warnings in books. The content warnings are:

  • Coarse language
  • Blood and violence, some gore
  • Moments of graphic violence/torture
  • On-page character death
  • Body horror
  • Harassment/bullying
  • Vomiting
  • Poisoning
  • Amnesia
  • Grief/bereavement
  • Anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks
  • Trauma related to kidnapping/physical abuse
  • Parent death (discussed, glimpsed in flashbacks)
  • Car accident (discussed, glimpsed in flashbacks)
  • One instance of a forced kiss (not intended to be romantic or sexual)

I only have two very minor criticisms for Bloody Spade. The first is that there were a few usages of sentences starting with “Suddenly” that felt out of place in Willows’ otherwise very tight prose. There were two that stuck out to me that I think could have easily been written out. I only mention it here because those specific times it actually took me out of the story because I was so shocked to see it on the page. Because as I’d mentioned, Willows’ prose is tight, crisp, and descriptive. So, starting a sentence with “suddenly” instead of describing the sound or motion of the action felt very out of place.

The second very minor criticism is that the foreshadowing in the book is not subtle (or at least, it wasn’t for me). Now that didn’t detract from the story for me, nor did it impact the tension–but nothing really felt like a big plot twist or a shocking reveal because the foreshadowing made it very clear what to expect.

All in all, this book is amazing and it has easily slotted into one of my top five favorite books. And no, I’m not just saying this because I got a free copy of the book. In fact, I’m buying several copies of the book so I can yeet them at my friends and beg them to read it so I have people to talk to about it. Bloody Spade captured so many themes, handled so many big emotions, and had such wonderful characters, that the story will live rent free in my brain for a long time and will most definitely be a book that I re-read and eagerly await the next installment of the duology.

5 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Reader:  Anime lovers, SFF readers, and anyone who is looking for an amazing spread of LGBTQIA+ representation that is written in a setting where being queer is considered normal.

You can find more from Brittany M. Willows on Twitter, her Instagram, and her Carrd.

Book Provided by Author: The Queerblr was provided a copy of Bloody Spade for free by the author; this has in no way affected the review and rating of the book that was written by The Queerblr.

Tune in next week for The Queerblr’s pre-release review of Leveling Up, by Jazzy Mitchell!

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