Monday, April 22, 2013
Bastard Reaction: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
Promise of Blood is the debut novel of Brian McClellan featuring a world brimming with creativity and sweet chaos. It is a damn cool novel full of action, energy, gods, special powers, magic, and old-school snipers with muskets. You can't go wrong with snipers with muskets, particularly of the gunpowder snorting kind. It's the first novel of what is currently known as The Powder Mage Trilogy.
"The age of kings is dead... and I have killed it.” After a coup the dethroned its monarch, we follow the attempted recovery of the Adro nation amid civil unrest, betrayals, an invading army, and the threat of gods returning to devastate the land. Tamas is the powder mage Field Marshal, and has become the de facto ruler attempting to restore order in Adro by any means necessary as he also prepares for war against the Kez nation. Taniel, his son and powder mage himself, has been tasked to hunt down a Privileged sorceress who gives the impression of being more powerful than the usual, while he tries to achieve an even more impossible task, earning his father's recognition. Adamat, who's concerned with his family's safety with the impending riots and his future role, is a retired investigator with a Knack for perfect memory and employed by Tamas for some special investigations that threaten his rule and the well-being of the Adro nation. Nila is a laundress for a duke and in the aftermath of the coup, as the nobility is being destroyed and executed, she rescues and flees with the duke's son, a possible heir to the throne.
The world McClellan has created has been well constructed. He took the time to build a proper support for it with religious, economic, social, military, and political considerations. Some better detailed than others, but it provided a good backbone for a well grounded universe that will pay dividends as the series continues. If you look hard enough you can draw parallels to modern concerns, whether intended or not. That said, the world-building is not expansive, quite controlled as demanded by the story and each plot thread. In a way, you might call it focused, but McClellan has provided enough seeds of information that will enable him to enrich the world in future installments in the stories he intends to tell.
The magic system was awesome and creative. Brian McClellan appears to give plenty of credit to Brandon Sanderson for his development as a writer, and it seems to me is that in the creation of this magic system is where the influence is most noticeable. Sanderson in my experience is partial to hard magic systems, and I found McClellan's quite softer, but I don't know if it'll remain so in future installments. But it's really of little consequence. In all, the magic was my favorite aspect of this series. We have people who have Knacks that provide them individualized abilities that could range from super hearing to the ability to eating without getting fat. Then we have the Privileged who are more like sorcerers who can access the Else and do a variety of magical phenomenons. Lastly we have the Marked, also known as the powder mages who can control gunpowder in a variety of ways, including ingesting and snorting the black powder in order to gain a myriad of physical enhancements. There are other considerations that aren't as developed yet, like the nature of gods and some magical powers that some of the savages seem to possess.
Along with the magic system, Promise of Blood featured some great characters further enhanced by an abundance of good dialogue. I thought them well characterized and McClellan did a good job of keeping each plot thread fresh, different, but interconnected. With Tamas we focused more on the political drama aspects, with Adamant a more of an investigative mystery thread is present, and Taniel is more action adventure oriented.
My favorite POV character was Taniel "Two Shot". For some reason I kept picturing Billy the Kid portrayed by Emilio Estevez in the Young Guns movies. Other than their awesomeness, they really didn't have much in common, but my mind works in mysterious ways and I let it run wild. The very nature of Taniel being a powder mage almost guaranteed that he'd be a favorite of mine, to go along with his gunpowder sniffing addiction and all the cool actions sequences he was part of. The author also did a good job with his side characters too, in particular with Tamas' Knacked bodyguard Olem and Taniel's savage mute girl Ka-poel. Not going to say much about Ka-poel other than she was awesome, and every fantasy novel should add a mysterious mute girl, it'll instantly make the story better. With Olem though is where the book really shone for me and his back-and-forth dialogue with Tamas. He was interesting, with a number of deadpanned wise-cracks that won me over since the very first time he appeared.
As one reflects on the impossible task to write the perfect novel, this novel wasn't without its flaws too despite it being an excellent debut. First and foremost you might have noticed my omission of Nila as I discussed the POVs above, and honestly she was the weakest link for me of the whole novel. Her story was uninteresting, and when compared with the multitude of good characters the story had, she just didn't measure up, despite giving us a perspective from the other side of the conflict. She instantly joined the characters authors need to kill off to make their stories better. Also, I lament how underused the character of Vlora was by the author. She was powder mage prodigy and Taniel's ex-fiancée. I felt there were some missed opportunities to include her in some scenes, and make her a more active participant in the ones where she was included.
I also felt the second half of the story wasn't as good as the first half, and not as tight. In part because it made me question some of the characters' inaction and motivations. For example, it made me question why a character from a neutral party didn't expose certain character's allegiance and identity when it served his/her interest to do so while being satisfied with a vague flimsy warning. Also, I question why Tamas was seemingly unconcerned with a great army invasion at one of Adro's borders, and when the situation was addressed at all some poor rationalization was used which was really inconsequential to the matter at hand. Further more, weeks passed since the confrontation started so there was ample time for a better military response.
Lastly, from a technical standpoint I thought McClellan could use better timing and transitions when he utilizes time jumps. Seems like a few of them were overall not necessary and also seemed to deprive the readers from some scenes that could have been of interest and served the flow of the story better. Also, a bit more care with the use of pronouns in certain situations were it confused me as to who the author was referring to considering that the sentences in question could have applied to any of the characters involved in the situation, even if one allows for the idea of him being distracted by other happenings.
I also respected how McClellan forced his characters, in particular our heroes, to make difficult decisions and didn't shy away from making them do monstrous and despicable acts that would surely alienate some of the readers. But the author stayed true to what the story demanded of its characters, and I think that's very important. Not everything is as it seems on first impressions, there are many characters who'd make wonderful actors if that were their calling, but in all I thought McClellan did his damndest to give his characters the opportunity to be perceived one way, while giving allowance of redemption in the eyes of readers through other means as it was with the character of Tamas.
Promise of Blood kept reminding me of the early efforts by Brent Weeks with his Night Angel novels. There was a rawness to them, but there simply was an overwhelming entertaining element and an abundance of great action and energy that made them very enjoyable reads. Then I compare it to his most recent series, and he's become a much better and skillful writer. Brian McClellan debut is more polished than an early Weeks, yet has that same combination of action, energy, and entertainment to make this a worthwhile read based on this factors alone, despite it having more to offer. I'm quite excited in seeing this author grow as a writer and I'm very much of the opinion that he'll be responsible for some of my favorite stories in the future. As it is, I'm practicing my gunpowder sniffing skills... people keep telling me I'm special, so who knows what might happen.
Brian McClellan has written an extremely good debut in Promise of Blood and easily one of my favorite novels so far this year. I was tempted to use "awesome" and "cool" in just about every sentence describing this novel, but I decided to control myself as best as I could. Promise of Blood is indeed an awesome and cool novel, highly recommended, and with the explosive ending it had, I'm very excited to see where McClellan takes us next in this world.
After all of this, let's just ignore everything I've said and focus on the awesome cover. A book with that cover deserves to be bought and read, everything else is of little importance.
Buy Promise of Blood from The Book Depository.
For more information please visit the author's website or follow him on Twitter @BrianTMcClellan.