I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out: I love alternate history, Venice is one of my favourite cities (the book I’m working on is set there in large part), and it sounded like an interesting twist on the hoary old vampires-vs-werewolves trope. In all these respects I was not disappointed. Unfortunately it was not all moonlight and roses – but more about that later.
The Fallen Blade tells the story of Tycho, a young man of about seventeen who finds himself in early fifteenth-century Venice with no memory of his past and, worse still, strange inhuman abilities he does not understand. Even his name is given to him by the Venetians who find him, based on the first, garbled words he speaks.
As mentioned above this is an alternate history Venice, where Marco Polo returned from China to seize power and end the old republic, replacing it with a hereditary dukedom. Now his great grandson, Marco IV, sits on the throne of Serenissima, but the young duke is apparently mad, and his mother and uncle vie for power behind the throne. Chief amongst their retainers is Atilo the Moor, aging head of the Assassini, who sees in Tycho the ultimate assassin and his future heir.
Tycho is not so pliable, however, and resists his masters at every turn. When he comes up against a krieghund, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s werewolves, he discovers there is a secret magical war going on behind the mundane politicking…
There’s a lot to enjoy about this book. The world-building is fresh and intriguing, hinting at a broad canvas that will be pursued in subsequent books. Grimwood’s Renaissance Venice is suitably filthy, smelly and brutal, appropriately enough since what we mostly see is its seamy underbelly. But there were aspects of the writing that, for me at least, were less successful.
Firstly, I found the prose hard to follow in places. Grimwood is a little too fond of sentence fragments and odd punctuation, and the point of view lurches between omniscient and close third person in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as shaky handheld camerawork, the focus always seeming to shift away from a character or the action of a scene at a crucial moment. Add this to the large number of characters and plot threads being thrown at the reader in the opening chapters, and it makes for a disorienting kaleidoscope of imagery. The storytelling does eventually settle down to a clearer rhythm and builds to a set-piece action climax – only to be spoilt by a deus ex machina resolution to Tycho’s seemingly impossible mission.
Far more off-putting, however, was the constant catalogue of violence against the female characters in this novel. For a good two-thirds of the book, scarcely a chapter (and there are a lot of them) goes by without a young woman being abused, violated or, in the worst cases, horribly murdered. Admittedly few characters in this book escape violence and abuse, least of all pretty-boy Tycho, who spends so much of the book naked that one is frequently shocked to discover he is clothed in a given chapter. A certain amount of violence is expected in a book like this, but it is the unremitting, brutal and often sexual cruelty towards the girls that leaves this female reader with an unpleasant taste in her mouth.
Now, one could say this is a historically accurate portrayal of a highly misogynistic culture, but surely it is the prerogative of the artist to pick and choose his subjects and arrange them according to the effect he wishes to produce? In this case, the effect was that I only continued reading the book in order to be able to give a fair and balanced review.
Overall, I feel disinclined to recommend this book, or to read the sequel. A pity, as Tycho is an intriguing character and I would like to know more about the Fallen. Not enough, however, to wade further through the fetid canals of Grimwood’s Venice.