Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan
This awesome tagline adorns the cover of Brian McClellan’s debut novel Promise of Blood, the first volume of the Powder Mage Trilogy, and aptly sums up the political theme of the book: revolution.
After a few false starts with novels I struggled to get into, I’ve taken to downloading free samples from kobobooks.com with the intention of only buying the book if sufficiently hooked. Promise of Blood passed this test with flying colours and I quickly bought the ePub so that I could continue reading.
Promise of Blood follows three main characters: Field Marshall Tamas (portrayed on the cover); his estranged son Taniel, who is a powder mage; and Adamat, a retired policeman hired by Tamas as a private investigator. (A fourth point-of-view character, a young woman named Nila, makes a few brief but significant appearances.) Having discovered that their bankrupt king is about to sign a treaty with a neighbouring country that would effectively make them a vassal state, Tamas engineers a bloody coup and executes not only the royal family but most of the nobility. Naturally this does not go down well, and the two nations are soon at war—but there are far greater dangers waiting in the wings…
Whilst there are many enjoyable aspects of the book, the most interesting is its magic system. There are three types of magic-user in this world: the Knacked, who have a single magical talent (e.g. a perfect memory, or not needing to sleep); the Privileged, who are somewhat conventional sorcerors, with telekinetic-like powers over the elements; and the Marked, also known as powder mages. These latter have a specific affinity with gunpowder, being able to ignite it with a thought, use it to propel bullets without the need of a gun, and control the trajectory of ammunition, even altering its path mid-flight. They also use it as a drug, snorting or swallowing it to enhance their senses and give themselves superhuman endurance—and like a drug, it can be addictive. Each powder mage has a particular talent, which is where Taniel gets his nickname “Two-Shot”: he can direct two bullets simultaneously, on different trajectories.
On the subject of names, one slightly odd aspect of the worldbuilding is that apart from one character (and excluding Taniel’s nickname), everyone is referred to by a single name throughout: Tamas, Adamat, Olem, etc. Whilst this simplifies matters for the reader, it does feel oddly artificial. Since one character definitely has both a first name (Ricard) and a surname (Tumblar), this seems likely to be true of the majority, especially in a densely populated society as is described here, and yet no-one ever addresses Taniel as “Captain Tamas” (assuming that his father is always referred to by his surname). It’s a very minor niggle, though!
What bothered me more about the book was that I found the prose somewhat uneven, particularly in the first half. The narrative is wooden at times, especially character descriptions, which are often a bland list of clothing and hair colour/style that convey little about the person being described. On the other hand the dialogue is pretty solid; an early exchange between Tamas and his new bodyguard made me chuckle out loud and reminded me a great deal of the banter between Tyrion and Bronn in Game of Thrones.
Speaking of which, I did feel the shadow of GRRM looming over this book just a little. There’s the border guarded by the Mountainwatch, a bunch of ruffians, drunkards and other ne’er-do-wells; a political council featuring not only the obligatory senior priest with a weakness for pretty girls but also a sly eunuch with shady connections; and the overall plot arc of a group of kingdoms (here nine, rather than the seven of Westeros) collapsing into war. However these are minor resemblances that don’t detract from the overall originality of the setting, and despite the violence necessary to the theme, the tone is far less grim and depressing than A Song of Ice and Fire.
The book also benefits from a number of strong female characters, both protagonists and antagonists. Although this is a fairly historically-flavoured setting, there are women in the army (at least amongst the powder mages) and women with political influence, and even those without high status are given agency. On the protagonists’ side there’s the aforementioned Nila, who is a plucky servant girl caught up in the political machinations; and most notably the enigmatic Ka-Poel, who reminds me a little of Irisa from the TV show Defiance, being a red-headed foreigner rescued by our hero who turns out to be more powerful than he ever imagined. The only female character whom I felt was sold short was Taniel’s fellow powder mage and former fiancée, Vlora, who got very little stage-time and whose backstory made her seem rather naive and unsympathetic. Interestingly, McClellan has published a short story, “The Girl of Hrusch Avenue”, about Vlora’s earlier life, so that is now high on my TBR pile!
In summary: if you enjoy your fantasy with a political bent and are looking for something a bit different from the usual medieval setting, check this book out. I’m certainly looking forward to the sequel, The Crimson Campaign, which is due out next February.