BRIEF SYNOPSIS: For Field Marshal Tamas, overthrowing his corrupt and out-of-touch King was the easy part. Now Tamas must hold the country together with a traitor in his midst and a foreign army at the doorstep. Still a greater threat looms near, ready to engulf the entire world.
PROS: Makes good use of the inclusion of gunpowder; updates fantasy themes; some decent action.
CONS: Lack of strong female characters; weak magic system; failure to capitalize on new ground.
BOTTOM LINE: There’s an opportunity for McClellan to tread the road less traveled but Promise of Blood remains a rather traditional fantasy.
I’ve been sitting on this review for a week now. I can’t really start a new book until I expel the last one from my system in the cathartic act of the review. Usually I finish a book and have my impressions written down by the next day at the latest. It took that long to figure out what I wanted to say about Promise of Blood. It’s not even that Brian McClellan’s debut novel is bad – that review would be easier to write. The problem is that there are some great ideas that aren’t fully realized. The bones of a different breed of fantasy are in place, but Promise of Blood opts out for the safe approach.
I can’t begin to describe how excited flintlock fantasy makes me. I see it as a sub-genre that can shift the whole fantasy paradigm around. The presence of gunpowder hints at a new set of themes and conflicts to come into play, much as it did in our history. That’s not to say that Promise of Blood is the first flintlock fantasy – Bradley Beaulieu’s inventive Lays of Anuskaya comes to mind – but gunpowder is major factor in the story. I like the way McClellan incorporated the clash between the traditional magic of the royal cabal and the gunpowder magic of the Field Marshal’s Powder Mages. It served as an interesting juxtaposition to further underscore the themes of Promise of Blood. This is bolstered by the invention of the printing press and the organization of labor unions. It set the stage for different social issues than most may be accustomed to seeing in their fantasy. The ground work is laid but there is too little exploration of these issues for the story to live up to its potential.
Likewise, the magic system of Promise of Blood suffers from a lack of detail, falling into this nebulous state between esoteric and ultra-detailed RPG style. Readers are introduced to the Powder Mages who are able to ingest gunpowder to heighten their senses. They can also burn the powder to control bullets in mid-flight. Then there are the Privileged (members of the royal cabal) who wear gloves that allow them to manipulate the elements. Then there are Predeii, which are like Privileged but far more powerful. And then there are other mysterious magics. It’s too broad and too shallow. The Powder Mages aren’t allowed to shine because they are crowded by the generic Privileged.
Promise of Blood is told from four perspectives, though one is neglected for much of the novel. The first thread is that of Field Marshal Tamas, the linchpin of the rebellion. Quite surprisingly Tamas takes a back seat for most of the novel. In the first pages we are introduced to Adamat, a retired investigator with a gambling problem. Adamat, our second POV, is called to the king’s palace with no warning. What he finds there is the aftermath of a bloody coup, perpetrated by Tamas and his Powder Mages. The royal cabal of magicians has been exterminated and the king awaits execution come morning. Tamas tasks Adamat with uncovering the secret of “Kresimir’s Broken Promise,” the final words spoken by the royal mages in the moment of their death. When Adamat scurries off on this matter of importance, Tamas sends for his wayward son Taniel. Taniel “Two Shot” marks our third POV, and probably the strongest character Promise of Blood has to offer. Taniel has spent the past couple of years fighting in a fringe conflict against the Kez. Tamas assigns Taniel the responsibility of hunting down a dangerous royal mage that escaped the coup. The fourth perspective belongs to a royal house servant so unimportant I forget her name.
I expected Field Marshal Tamas to be the star of Promise of Blood. The Field Marshal’s chapters focus on his newly acquired duties running the nation while simultaneously trying to survive multiple assassination attempts. I was actually pretty excited to follow Tamas’s attempts to keep the bankrupt country afloat, all while distributing power to the common folk, and preparing for an invasion from the Kez. Call me weird, but A Song of Ice and Fire taught me that fantasy politics can be every bit as exciting as pitched combat. What came as a surprise was how uncomplicated issues seemed. Despite a tremendous deficit, a royalist rebellion, a traitor in the midst of the inner council, and the threat of invasion the problems Tamas faced never seemed insurmountable. It was all just too…easy. And then there are the assassination attempts. Tamas could win a Darwin Award for all the unnecessarily dangerous situations he puts himself in. I appreciate that he needs to be portrayed as a head strong leader but I would also expect to see a higher degree of self-preservation.
Adamat’s POV is much stronger, though it is rather conventional. As Promise of Blood progresses, Adamat goes from investigating Kresimir’s Broken Promise to trying to uncover the traitor in Tamas’s inner council. This follows the traditional detective format, and though neither Adamat nor his muscle-bound partner SouSmith ever shine as characters they have some interesting characters. There’s something admirable about a detective digging into the illicit affairs of the rich and powerful and McClellan has a grasp of the clue-setting and misdirection necessary to weave mystery into the story.
Taniel “Two-Shot” is the true protagonist of Promise of Blood. The Field Marshal casts an awfully long shadow but Taniel has done what he can to try matching up to his father’s expectations. So yes, Taniel is burdened with father-problems (which I only half jokingly call the most common type of problem in all fiction) but his motivation is far more compelling than Tamas’s (revenge) or Adamat’s (survival). Taniel’s difficult relationship with his father sends him on a ridiculously dangerous mission to hunt down the rogue royal mage. Eventually Taniel is also sent to kill his childhood friend, another royal mage that might pose danger to Tamas down the road. Along the way Taniel indulges a drug addiction, festers from the betrayal of his betrothed, and participates in the defense against the invading Kez army (which strangely enough, no one appears all that concerned about).
I could mention the fourth POV here but there wouldn’t be much point in doing so. Instead I’ll take this chance to suggest that the second book of the Powder Mage Trilogy would benefit from a stronger female presence. The fourth POV feels like a tacked-on afterthought. Aside from Taniel’s sidekick, the mute savage named Ka-Poel, there book suffers from an estrogen deficiency. One of the primary villains is a woman and a member of Tamas’s inner council is also female but the whole thing feels unbalanced on the gender front.
Promise of Blood isn’t a bad book. There are some really neat ideas and themes that just need to be polished and more closely detailed for the series to define itself amongst the crowd. I would personally like to see a heavier female presence in the sequel. Up until the finale I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be reading the second book in the series but I was hooked by the ending. Of course it would be up to Taniel to cement my return to the series but he pulled it off. I would recommend Promise of Blood to fans of Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks. There is plenty of action and the plot is fast moving. Plus this is a debut, McClellan could really knock the sequel out of the park.