THE SKINNY: A power vacuum in an alternate medieval Venice catapults Tycho, a mysterious 17 year old slave with supernatural powers and weaknesses, into deadly intrigue and adventures.
PROS: Stunningly and realistically evoked medieval Venice that gets the details right.
CONS: Machinations of some of the characters a little too murky; a few of the subplots feel false; the cover is more than a bit misleading.
VERDICT: Grimwood gets off on the right foot in starting his new trilogy.
“Although Lady Giulietta didn’t bother to stop or turn and thank him for the thought. Why should she? He thought She was a Millioni. A member of the richest family in Europe. And he? A minor patrician, who squatted one room of a ten-room palace because the other nine were colder, damper and even more disgusting than the one he used.”
John M Ford’s The Dragon Waiting is a classic of the fantasy genre. Positing a history that is simultaneously magic-infused and alternate, that novel revolves around the machinations of some powers in 15th century Europe. In addition to the alternate political universe, the world of The Dragon Waiting has vampires, wizards, and more. Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer have similarly trod such territory with their Heirs of Alexandria series, mixing their medieval European venue with magic, pagan demon gods, Elizabeth Bathory, among other elements. That series, like the Fallen Blade, centers around the jewel of the Adriatic, although its alternate world is set somewhat later in history.
Now, Jon Courtenay Grimwood enters the same territory with The Fallen Blade, Act I of The Assassini Trilogy. The scene is early 15th century Venice. Several centuries before, history went differently in Grimwood’s world. Instead of being imprisoned for years, Marco Polo instead, with a triumphant return to Venice, established a Dukedom in Venice and his family, with two interruptions, have ruled over the city ever since. Now, in early 15th century Venice, Marco IV, a simpleton, sits on the throne.
In such a power vacuum his uncle, the regent Prince Alonzo, and Duchess Alexa, the late duke’s widow, scheme and plot against each other, even as the enemies of Venice nip at her heels. Amongst those who find themselves caught up in this scheming are Lady Giulietta, Marco’s cousin, and Tycho, a 17 year old boy brought to Venice from a faraway land with strange hungers, stranger weaknesses and considerable abilities…
The cover of the novel, while it shows our inhuman protagonist Tycho realistically, does not do the novel justice. The average person who looks at the cover might mistake The Fallen Blade for yet another urban fantasy novel with a vampire protagonist. It is an urban fantasy to some extent–although the city in the urban fantasy of this novel is indeed 15th century Venice.
Grimwood’s evocation of Venice in the 15th century, even as an alternate, is both evocative and avoids whitewashing what life in the medieval city was like. He never avoids highlighting the fact that, even for members of the minor nobility, life in Venice circa 1407 was less than pleasant by many standards. Too, the various characters, ranging from that nobility on down, do not feel like they are 21st century people transported to 15th century Europe. Even as, for example, the female characters chafe against the strictures of their gender, they do not act ahistorically in doing so. The casual brutality and “life is cheap, brutish and short” attitude many had in the period is here in full force. Grimwood never hesitates to show us a rounded picture of his created world.
The action sequences in the book are handled very well, as we get to see all levels and all manner of people caught up in sometimes very violent events. From ships on fire, to a deadly test for a would-be assassin, Grimwood leavens his narrative with potent dollops of action. And the action can be extremely visceral and bloody indeed.
The paranormal aspects of the book become more pronounced as it proceeds, as if Grimwood wanted to have his readers used to his milieu before introducing more and more exotic elements. It never rises to the levels that we see magic and sorcery as in the aforementioned Heirs of Alexandria series, but by the end of this book, any doubts that the rules of this world are not our own is abundantly clear.
The strength of the characterization in the book varies. The major characters, Giulietta, Tycho and Captain Atilo are the best fleshed out. The Regent and the Duchess, however, were a bit frustrating to get a handle on, especially since their schemes and counter schemes are the driving force for some of the novel. While scheming Italian nobles are historically in line, it did make it difficult to identify with either of them well. Other minor characters vary in how well they are fleshed out. Happily, none of them are too thin.
As far as plot, the narrative follows several threads, ranging from the arrival of Tycho, as a slave, to the city, and the machinations of the two major powers of the Millioni that swirl around Giulietta. She is promised to the King of Cyprus, but that match has opponents both within and without of Venice.
A few of the subplots fall a little flat, including a romance that I don’t think that Grimwood sold very well. It feels very abrupt and there only for narrative purposes rather than an organic meeting of two souls that complete each other.
Thankfully, Grimwood ends the novel well. Readers will not feel like they are reading only part of a single book. He does leave the book with a proper conclusion, but with plenty of things to follow up for the second book. There are plenty of mysteries, too, unanswered, that await future books for possible answers.
Will you enjoy this book? Readers of alternate history who don’t mind the addition of arcane elements mixed into it will enjoy this. Readers of, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels who wish for more than the slight evocation of the supernatural in those books will lap The Fallen Blade up.
I would not recommend this book, however, going back to the cover question again, to readers expecting modern Urban Fantasy. This is a case where appearances definitely are deceiving.
As for me, I definitely want to see where Grimwood is going with these characters and this world, and so I look forward to Act II of The Assassini Trilogy.