Promise of Blood review

Friday, April 12, 2013

Promise of Blood is the debut novel for Brian McClellan and the first book in the Powder Mage Trilogy. The author started writing in his teens and eventually met with Brandon Sanderson who helped him with his writing. He then attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp and signed up with Orbit for his first trilogy. The follow-up, The Crimson Campaign should be out next year.
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...
Black powder and guns have shown up sporadically in Fantasy.  In Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan chose to bring them at the forefront of an epic Fantasy story, flavoring a world where industrialization is taking its roots.  In this world, magic takes many shapes, from the elemental basis to the absorption of powder, creating a whole new breed of mages.  Incidentally, that last type of magic is quite reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson's allomancy.

Speaking of which, I can confirm that if you're a fan of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks' works (mostly so for the later in his Lightbringer series) and you don't mind to replace the sword by the gun, Promise of Blood should be right down your alley.

There's a reason for me in bringing up the magic system first and comparing McClellan's work with these authors. Indubitably, if you like magic systems that have been thought through, bringing something new to the table, the book will deliver.  The result may not be the most extravagant presentation but it still proclaims enough diversity to become distinctive.  When a powder mage enters a trance and throw several bullets at once at that many targets while making them curve, a certain level of coolness, quite hard to denied, is achieved.

However, the explanation of this idea of an evolution of magic (consequently of all forms of magic found in this world) is not easily blended in the narrative.  Some infamous infodumps make appearances and create some clunky dialogues.  I'll get back to this later.  Anyway, it's not all there is to this novel.  Political intrigue, deception, god incarnations, vengeance, action and subterfuges... there's plenty of stuff to satisfy the appetite of Epic Fantasy readers.

Now that the magic system is established, let's take a look at the users.  In The Nine, the countries divided by a God long ago and given to Kings to rule forever at his parting, the cabals of Privileged are positioned at the heart of an equilibrium between rulership and power. Despite this, it's the Powder Mage cabal standing at the center of Promise of Blood's tale.  At the head of this small group is Tamas, the Field Marshal leading the coup on Adro's monarchy.

From the start, where the world of all the protagonists is turned upside down, Tamas shines as a standard-bearer for the revolution.  The senior reformer possesses all the elements of a great character.  The way he talks and acts, he transpires natural leadership and you can feel the inspiration he creates in the other members of the cast following him.  Moreover, he's not a righteous paladin or glorified champion, he has a darker aspect.  The better part of it is coming from his past and from the hardship of having to step up for the greater good of the country he loves.

His relationships with his subordinates, associates and son are skillfully handled by the author. In most scenes where Tamas is involved, even if it's after a few chapters of stagnation for the unevenly paced story, the narrative seems to become more alive.  As for Taniel, the prodigal son, his situation is quite different. It's not that his character is less fascinating, his storyline has compelling moments, the difference is mainly due to what he is facing.  When mythic figures of the past with incomparable power and appearing to be invincible involve themselves, it's hard to imagine a young Powder Mage and his acolytes as a match.

Taniel's silent companion, a 'savage' from a country farther away, seems to be the answer to that slight lack of balance. However, I hope that she won't be the solution all along the trilogy or that at least we'll get significant insight into her character.  Consequently, this is the same for some minor storylines in the book, which are probably the first tendrils of greater plans for the author.  That's something to look for in the two remaining books.

Slightly on the sidelines, we also follow Adamat, an ex-police officer, turned private investigator.  His thread feels a bit like Mark C. Newton noir mystery (the part of his novel involving Jeryd). With him, we discover more of the intriguing world created by McClellan, feeling the flow of the community while he's doing diverse investigations for Tamas. Adamat inquiries can feel hollow at times, without definite roots in the actual storyline but eventually end up in an eventful climax creating interesting new perspectives and possibilities for the following book and a proper ending for this one.

As you can gather, I liked the world (strangely with millions and millions of people, numbers I'm not used to see), history, settings, society and intrigues found in Promise of Blood.   On the downside, as I mentioned for the magic system, the things I enumerated are not always discovered or discussed about naturally.  I found it weird for several characters who seem to be knowledgeable, to ask questions about basic subjects that ought to be known by individuals of a certain standing living in this universe. That doesn't mean it's not interesting, it simply feels awkward.  That aspect will probably dissipate with the second book, but the author should pay attention to it.

Promise of Blood is a solid debut. With the world and magic system set in place, I think that McClellan can now work extensively on the characters and story, which will certainly give us an even better novel next time. The author's prose is simple enough, straightforward and without unnecessary artifices but could use some more editing. Clearly, Flintlock Fantasy has found a promising new voice.
Technically, I absolutely loved the Orbit cover for the book.  I think it's more than serious contender for my best cover of the year. The paperback edition stands at 560 pages and for the greatest enjoyment of map lovers, three beautiful maps are included in the book.

Promise of Blood
 review score :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


Brian McClellan page


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