Crown of The Blood by Gav Thorpe – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first in Gav Thorpe’s original fantasy series for Angry Robot Books, Crown of The Blood, a fast-paced novel with a world inspired by life in the Roman legions.
“Fantastic characterisation, intriguing world-building and an ending that makes your jaw drop, Crown of The Blood is an excellent novel that is a must-read for any fantasy fan.” ~The Founding Fields
Its always weird to find out that the tie-in genre fiction author you’ve been reading for years has also done some original fiction as well. Its just not something that clicks immediately or something that you even consider on a conscious level. I had that reaction when I found out that James Swallow had written in Star Trek and Stargate universes (two of my favourites it goes without saying), that Graham McNeill had written for StarCraft (I, Mengsk is a fantastic novel), that Dan Abnett wrote a fair amount of comics for various publishers. And so on. When I found out that Gav Thorpe had written some original fantasy set in a very Roman-esque setting, I was quite intrigued since he is one of my favourite Black Library authors and I’ve always enjoyed his work. So I eventually picked up Crown of The Blood, and when I started to read it, I went in expecting to be… surprised, shall we say.
Crown of The Blood will surprise you for sure and then some. It is not traditional fantasy because the narrative does not take place in a pseudo-medieval European world, a setting that is extremely common, as common as the barbarian societies popularised by Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. That in itself is a big draw of the novel for me, and also one of its biggest charms. The era of the Roman Emperors, and the Republic itself is a really evocative perioid in world history, and one that I’ve had an interest for a long time, although I have only passing knowledge of it, gleaned from whatever history books I read in high school and college or the relevant movies that been put out over the years. So reading Crown of The Blood was a great, fantastic experience. The inspiration and influence is very much there and the world-building that it entails and effects was just the type of varied reading I wanted to do this year.
Strong characterisation has always been one of Gav’s strengths, and Crown of The Blood is no exception to that. Ullsaard, the protagonist, is also a great character. He is a general, a family man, straight as an arrow (most of the time) and a fair, honourable man who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when needed. The narrative is focused on Ullsaard coming to terms with the realisation that he has ambitions, ambitions that will take him to the very throne of the Greater Askhos Empire, and shows how he takes his first steps into the world of politics and treachery. Start to finish I had no problem in rooting for the guy because Gav portrays him so well and gives us ample reason to like himin the first place. That’s not to say of course that Ullsaard is an all-round good guy because he is not. There are shades of grey to his character, maybe not as much as I would have liked but they are there, and reading about a “good guy” character who sometimes performs and even condones acts that any normal man would consider barbaric or even treacherous, adds a nice bit of three-dimensionality to him.
Ullsaard’s old friend, and his companion for much of the novel, Noran is another strong character. Unlike Ullsaard, who is not of Askhan birth, he is a full-blooded Askhan and this adds a really nice dimension to their friendship and their relationship. Generally, I liked Noran, but I think he could have been slightly better since he is portrayed as somewhat too indecisive later on in the novel. It made for a bit of an odd reading but in the main, as a proper Askhan noble, Noran is pulled off nicely.
This also holds true for Ullsaard’s three wives: Allenya, Luia and Meliu. If I had to pick any favourites, it would most definitely be these three who were worth some great fun moments because of their dialogue and the way they act. Not to mention the in-setting factoid that the Askhans have a tradition of a male of noble blood marrying the sisters of his wife as well. All the intrigue and scheming that this results in for Ullsaard and Noran was handled well by Gav and this is one aspect of the setting that I’m looking forwards to reading more of in the sequel, Crown of The Conqueror. Another thing is that the whole marrying your wife’s sisters aspect adds more to the narrative and to Ullsaard’s own character since while he himself is not an Askhan, his wives are and the question of ambition comes up now and then. And the fact that he has a different relationship with each of his wives: with Allenya he is caring and gentle and loving, with Luia he is often harsh and abrasive, with Meliu its all about lust and dominance. Interesting angle to take with a character.
Others that I really liked were the slave-debtor Anglhan, Prince Erlaan, Ullsaard’s eldest son Urikh (he has a surprising twist later in the novel) amd Prince Aalun (Erlaan’s uncle). Anglhan provided some great comedy and humour to the narrative while still coming across as a serious enough character. He reminds me quite a bit of Falstaff from Kill Shakespeare actually, in hindsight, although he is tougher overall and more practical-minded. Erlaan is somewhat similar but his best moments come from his inexperience and his “nature” as the son of the heir to the throne of Greater Askhor. He is a pampered prince who is being made to serve in the legions so he can be a little predictable in his dialogue and his behaviour but not too much. Plus he has one really great scene when he is all by himself and it made me laugh out loud. With Urikh, it was more the case that he is the dutiful son, albeit one with schemes and plans of his own, which is as expected really since he is Luia’s son and she herself likes to play games every now and then. Aalun I had high hopes for as the narrative progressed. He isn’t as he appears to be earlier on in the novel and even later, and his portrayal struck me as something quite distinctive from all the other schemers in the noevl.
All in all, Gav has put together a great cast for his novel and each has his/her own merits and demerits.
The pacing of the novel was just right, although there was the feeling in some places that it was moving along a little too slowly. Apart from a gift for strong characterisation, Gav is also great at writing some really good action scenes, whether it be pitched battles or one-on-one combats and it is a trend that continues in this novel too. The novel starts really strong with a pitched battle featuring an army of legionnaires, battle cats known as ailurs (Ullsaar actually rides one like one of the more “barbaric” portrayals of He-man and Battle-Cat) and towering elephant-like mounts reminiscent of the scenes from Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King, or even Alexander. The action is fast, punchy and quite bloody, which is just how it should be. The more introspective scenes, or scenes without physical combat are also handled well in the main because the dialogue never comes across as typical or bland.
Quite simply, there is a certain vitality running through the novel and it is quite easy to spot.
One of the things that really set Crown of The Blood apart from most other fantasy novels, and even from Gav’s own work with Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40,000 is that this is an adult novel from the get go. There is quite a bit of sex in it, lots of swearing and a fair amount of adult dialogue in general. Nothing extreme but just in the right amounts to get across to the reader that is a serious, realistic novel that is not run of the mill.
Everything considered, Crown of The Blood was a far more interesting and engaging novel than I’d expected. Gav’s prose was right on the markand he kept me interested throughout the novel. I really liked how Ullsaard gets drawn ever deeper into the shifting web of Askhan politics and how he takes charge of where events are taking him and then sets out to do what he wants and not what somebody else wants him to do. And going by the ending, Crown of The Conqueror is going to be a fantastic read. I really have to get around to that one before the third novel, Crown of The Usurper, comes out in about two months’ time or so.
So yeah, recommended novel. Another solid offering from Gav Thorpe.