Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan – Advance Double Review [Bane of Kings/Shadowhawk]

promise of blood

Bane of Kings and Shadowhawk both review the latest upcoming debut novel from Orbit Books.

“An awesome debut, if you’ve enjoyed the likes of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie – Promise of Blood is a book that you’ll want to get on board for. Unputdownable.”  ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields

“One of the most inventive and unique takes on fantasy with some really good characters and unique magic system.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

Bane of Kings’ thoughts:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…
Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces. 

It’s up to a few…
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved…
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

I think if I were to do an award for debut novel of the year, then there’s no question about it – The first book in the Powder Mage Trilogy from Brian McClellan will almost certainly be up in the Top 5. It’s stunning, well crafted, compelling and engaging, with some well written scenes throughout the whole novel with a powerfully built world allowing to enhance the story and create a greater impact on the reader.

Whilst some may dismiss the opening of yet another fantasy trilogy, especially with all the previous trilogies that have come before The Powder Mage, – The First Law Trilogy (Initial three books) by Joe Abercrombie, The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks, and thousands of more fantasy trilogies out there right the way through The Lord of the Rings and beyond – there comes a point where the reader starts to wonder if fantasy has anything new, fresh and exciting to throw at the reader. And I will respond to that question with a firm yes. There’s always going to be new fantasy titles on the market, and Promise of Blood is among the best of the new debuts that I’ve read since my introduction to the fantasy genre, not just in 2013.

The book itself is fairly dark, certainly darker than Brandon Sanderson’s, but it never quite reaches either Abercrombie or Martin levels of grittiness. This is an excellent debut that manages to draw several different things across from a variety of genres – for example, there’s guns and technology here as well as magic. In that category, it very much falls in with the same sort of style of novels as Brent Week’s second series, The Lightbringerand even to a certain extent the Warhammer Fantasy tie-in novels published by Black Library. Regardless of that however, – you will find yourself hooked in right from the start, and find yourself unable to put the book down as you are dragged on a fantastic adventure that will leave you begging for the next installment in the series, particularly when it comes to the awesome conclusion.

Promise of Blood is an epic read, and it’s one that starts of strong and gets better as the story progresses. The more you find yourself engaged in the narrative, the less you find yourself able to put it down. The world, the magic and everything is very firmly established and there is little room for anything that feels like it could be a “deus ex machina” moment. The characters are strong as well, adding another strength to an already impressive load of them, for the book’s characters are varied, diverse, creative and are, like all the best fantasy novels, flawed. They each have struggles that they must overcome, and the world itself is also quite different to the standard fantasy fare – having the feeling of perhaps a revolutionary France, especially when the King gets booted off the throne in the very beginning of the story, providing a great momentum for things to come.

It’s a complex and compelling debut, and although may not be as good as Abercrombie or Weeks, it’s very, very close. I think the only major flaw here is that the characters aren’t as memorable and engaging as the fantasy favourites –  Kylar Stern, Logen Ninefingers etc, but Tamas, Taniel and Adamat are among the better crafted fantasy characters that a reader can be entertained by, and as a result – the book itself still manages to be a very strong read. There’s just one minor flaw that I’ve found that barely detracted anything from the reading experience.

VERDICT: 4.5/5

Shadowhawk’s thoughts:

I’ll just lay it out straight: Promise of Blood is definitely one of the best debuts of the year. Brian McClellan, who is a former student of no less a personage than Brandon Sanderson himself, has created one of the most unique fantasy worlds I’ve read, and he has populated this world with characters that are a joy to read. In keeping perhaps with Sanderson’s own preferences for magic system (based on what editorials I’ve read), the magic system used in Promise of Blood is unique, varied, and socially relevant to the world, which makes it even more of an achievement. I expected the novel to be quite good, but I had no idea at the time just how good it really would be. Not exactly a surprise hit there, but definitely a hit for me.

Promise of Blood is set in an industrialised fantasy world where the dominant human nation has discovered gunpowder, which in itself has led to the foundation of the Powder Mages, a group of soldiers who can manipulate gunpowder to the the extent that they can threat powder horns as explosives and can guide the path of their musket shots after they are fired. Two of the protagonists in the novel, the father-son duo of Field Marshal Tamas and Taniel are both Powder Mages and their ability to manipulate gunpowder is one of the essential plot elements that the narrative focuses on. In particular, what I really liked about this kind of magic other than its novelty was that the author did not treat it as a concept without flaw, and he actively provides counters, which invariably lead to more conflict within the narrative. There is a kind of balance in the author’s portrayal, and I consider it significant that he took the time and opportunity to provide both sides of the issue, rather than focusing on one at the expense of the other. It would have been very easy for the author to portray it otherwise.

Going hand in hand with this aspect of the industrialised world is the fact that workers’ unions within the nation of Adro are mentioned repeatedly, giving an important context to the nature of the world and making it that much more realistic. Added to that is yet another fact that one of Field Marshal Tamas’ supporters is Ricard Tumblar, the man who heads Adro’s only worker union, and as such is a key player in the game of who gets to control the nation. There are occasional mentions of the power of the workers’ unions in the novel but nothing that is actively engaged with by the narrative, aside from the fact that given his position, Tumblar is a suspect in a murder attempt on Tamas. Overall, I think more could have been made of this aspect of the world, but I’m pretty satisfied with Brian McClellan’s approach regardless.

There are two other magic systems in the world – that of the Privileged, who appear to be the standard elemental magicians and sorcerers, and that of the Knacked, who have low-grade abilities that are very… common. Adamat, another protagonist in the novel, has a Knack that he has a near-perfect memory. Tamas’ bodyguard Olem has a Knack that he does not really require any sleep and keep on going for days on end. This three-legged system of magic in the world adds a lot of depth to it, and enhances the reader experience since all three systems are unique to each other in comparison and they are used very differently as well. The Privilged Borbador is another key character in the narrative, although he is not one of the protagonists. Regardless, his relationship with Taniel has important consequences to the advancement of the plot, and his role as a Privileged is quite crucial in the second half of the novel.

There are no characters in the novel that feel particularly ignored, other than perhaps Taniel’s former fiancee Vlora, who also happens to be a Powder Mage (quite an accomplished one in fact), and Taniel’s barbarian companion Ka-poel who offers up yet another kind of magic system, making her a bit of a wild card for the events that follow Field Marshal Tamas’ coup and dethronement of the King of Adro. The reason I say that Vlor is ignored is because quite a big deal is made of her place within Tamas’ command structure of the Adran military and her role as his intended daughter-in-law, but we get frustratingly little to do with her in the novel. She rarely leaves any kind of impact, and therefore I’m hoping that imbalance can be corrected in the sequel, The Crimson Campaign. She is a fascinating character in her own right, her accomplishments the equal of Taniel although along different abilities, and I would love to see more of her. With Ka-Poel, it had more to do with the fact that she was a “unique” barbarian who offered a mystery with regards to her nature and was someone that I never quite learned to trust with regards to just what she could and could not do with her magic.

In general, I found Brian McClellan’s characters to be characters with real motivations and honest attitudes. Field Marshal Tamas is someone who is loyal to his country and its people before anything else, and to keep them safe, he is prepared to go up against whatever authority that stands in his way. Even if this authority be the country’s hereditary ruler. With Taniel, he is driven to prove his worth to his father, and to show that he can be just as dependable a soldier as anyone else, while staying true to the core of his nature, and being honourable. With Adamat, he is driven to do what he does because he is an investigator at heart, and because he is persistent in his investigations. There were some moments with him that I felt could have been handled better, such as his encounter with certain notorious individuals who want him to turn into a sort of double-agent, but overall, he was a stand-out character who kept surprising me with the decisions he made. Through these three men, each with their own place in the social strata of Adran life, we watch the entire sequence of events unfold once King Manhouch is deposed and a council of powerful men and women at the highest levels of Adran leadership takes his place.

The pacing of the novel suffers in a few places, particularly when the narrative focuses on Nila, a former laundress to the nobility that Tamas has removed from power (she would also be another character that I felt was outright ignored). Her character arc added very little to the narrative, and I’m not entirely sure what her future will be like, given how the novel ends. She seemed almost superfluous to the narrative since she didn’t interact in a significant manner with either of the three main characters. Her arc was pretty much its own little thing in the larger framework that Brian McClellan created.

Quite odd that female characters in the novel don’t have that much agency (barring Ka-Poel to a degree since she is instrumental in Taniel’s repeated survival). I won’t make any claims of sexism or misogyny against the novel since that is not how any of the characters have been portrayed, and that whole line of argument is just a trip down the rabbit-hole anyway. Suffice to say, the characters appeared to more of a setup to future events for the sequel, and that they are meant to become significant later on in the overall meta narrative of the series. So I’m definitely waiting for The Crimson Campaign to come out.

There are lots of action scenes in the novel, sieges and shootouts alike, which made for some great variety in the narrative. Brian McClellan often goes into juicy detail with these action scenes, giving the strong impression that he most definitely has a good handle on how to do medieval/industrialised combat works when muskets and air rifles are mixed in. I loved the action scenes, especially the big shootout confrontation in the second half of the novel that leads into the climax, and they were something that I could not get enough of.

The Promise of Blood is a debut that hits pretty much all the points on the checklist for a damned good fantasy novel, and is one that I’d fully recommend. It has some great characters, a deceptively complex magic system (in a good way!), and a relatively fast-paced plot that ends with quite a bang.

Rating: 9/10

Milo, aka Bane of Kings, is a SFF/Comic reader, and watches a lot of TV. His favourite authors are Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson & Iain M. Banks, whilst his favourite TV shows are Battlestar Galactica (2003), Person Of Interest, Firefly, Game of Thrones, & Buffy the Vampire Slayer