BOOK REVIEW: The Outcast Blade by Jon C. Grimwood
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Tycho, Giulietta and the rest of Venice are caught in the gaze of two avaricious and dangerous Empires–the Holy Roman and the Byzantine
PROS: Immersive and deep writing, excellent invocation of place and character
CONS: A few plot points seem strangely unresolved. A lack of sympathetic characters may turn off some readers.
BOTTOM LINE: Excellent build on the first novel that feels like a continuation rather than a middle book.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, in The Fallen Blade [My SF Signal review here], introduced us to an alternate medieval Venice; a Venice where Marco Polo did not come back to be thrown in prison, but rather, with Mongol help (and a Mongol wife) set himself up to rule, a Venice with German Kriegshund (Werewolves), Vampires, and Magic, a Venice which is a powder keg of danger, discontent, and possibly, doom for the Queen of the Adriatic. The actions of an unlikely hero have saved the city from an enemy fleet, but even more pressing dangers remain…
The Outcast Blade continues the story of Tycho, the mysterious vampire trained as an assassin, Giulietta, pawn and prize of the Millioni family of Marco Polo, and the rest of the rich tapestry of characters. The dangers of the fleet abated, two large threats loom on the horizon. To the north is the Holy Roman Empire, who has a claim on Giulietta already though her husband-to-be is dead. To the east are the Byzantines, far from a tottering Empire in this world, they are just as dangerous, and just as eager to add Venice to their realms as the German Holy Romans are.
While the geopolitical play off between these two powers is the highest level of conflict in the novel, the stakes drill down to the city and its characters. Tycho is still finding out what he really is and what his existence means. Giulietta has a child, and is still the unwilling and willful pawn of the true two powers that rule Venice, Duchess Alexa and Prince Alonzo. They scheme and plot against each other and for power even as the true ruler of Venice is still a simpleton. Personal plots and betrayals in the Court make being in the Venetian Court as dangerous as not being within it. Oh, and stirrings against the Millioni is rising and building like a tide.
As you might have guessed, the immersive worldbuilding, splendidly written and evoked, is far and away the strongest thing in this very strong novel. I got so immersed in reading this that at one point, looking away from the novel, a reference to “Republicans” in a blog post evoked the Republicanism of the novel in my mind, rather than the American political party. This reader appreciates writing that can capture my mind and attention that way.
Beyond Venice itself, the writing goes down to the characters. This is not a middle book where things trundle along and nothing is resolved. We learn more about Tycho, as he learns more about himself and what he really is. There are a few reveals and revelations about other characters. Characters die, brutally, suddenly. The web, the chessboard of relationships by the end of this novel is definitely not the same as it was at the end of the first book.
The author enfolds information from the first novel very well into this one. It’s been over a year for this reader since reading the first novel, but the infodumping is subtle enough that it was evocative rather than heavy handed remembrances of events in the first novel. I think a reader new to this universe would find their fitting fairly easily if they wanted to start here. In such a strong novel, there is not a lot to quibble over. Some readers might not like the Venice as described. There are a lot of shades of grey characters here and the world is still nasty, brutish and short in this world. It may be offputting to some. Also, there seems to be a couple of Chekov’s guns that did not fire in this book. I don’t know if they are being set up for the third book, are really just background and this reader is misreading them as promises, but I would be disappointed if they aren’t addressed at some point. Their unraveled nature is distracting.
The Outcast Blade still hits that sweet spot that John Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, and to a lesser extent, the Heirs of Alexandria novels from Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer did. Medieval Europe, with a southern focus, with magic and supernatural elements. If Grimwood wanted, he has a ton of room to explore beyond Venice in future books. And I wouldn’t mind knowing what Spain, North Africa and elsewhere are like in this universe.
One more novel is in the works for this series. Given the hints from this second book, and revelations, I’m most definitely interested in how the author finishes up the Assassini Trilogy. You could start the series here, but really, you shouldn’t. Try the Fallen Blade and get immersed into this alternate Venice and those who inhabit it.
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