BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the country of Adro, overthrowing a corrupt King is only the beginning of the problems facing powder mage Field Marshal Tamas.
PROS: Interesting magic systems; good exploration of underused tech and social level; Muskets and Magic!
CONS: Significant problems with female characters.
BOTTOM LINE: An intriguing if imperfect debut novel.
The King is dead. A corrupt, incompetent and venal King, a tottering monarchy that bleeds its people dry. Field Marshal Tamas has, in a bold stroke, decapitated the monarchy, intending on setting up a more oligarchic form of government. However, there are plenty of royalists to worry about, including a significant fraction of the true mages, quite unlike the powder mage that Tamas is. A prophecy suggests that regicide may be a curse worse than the disease, and a neighboring country looks to take advantage of Adro’s weakness. And there are stranger things afoot. Field Marshal Tamas is going to learn that killing the King was the *easy* part.
Promise of Blood is the debut novel from author Brian McClellan. It’s set in the country of Adro, a land that has the feel of late 18th century France crossed with Switzerland, and which reminded me of the country of Ile-Rien in Martha Wells’ series’ beginning with Element of Fire. It also bears resemblance to the country of Montaigne in the roleplaying world of 7th Sea, which is set in a secondary world inspired similarly by the countries of Europe. Although there is gunpowder, the more interesting innovations in terms of the technological level of the setting are the hints of early-industrial revolution. We get conflict between church and state, trade unions, true universities and more. While there is plenty of steampunk fantasy, and fantasy set in the Enlightenment and earlier, this is a time period and development level not often seen in fantasy.
Promise of Blood mainly revolves around three characters. There’s Tamas, of course, who has a smaller viewpoint role in the book than I anticipated. Joining him is Inspector Adamat, a constable-turned-detective who investigates some strange doings in the wake of the coup on behalf of Tamas. The third major viewpoint is from Taniel Two-shot, a powder mage in Tamas’ army. He is also, as it so happens, Tamas’ son. There is a nice age range of characters and social classes here, from the nearly 60 year-old Tamas down to the young Taniel. It’s especially unusual to have a character of Tamas’ age and experience as a major character — a nice touch, I thought. The dynamic between father and son, clearly estranged on a number of issues and yet bound by military duty, is interesting.
The strongest point of the book for me is the magic systems. McClellan, a student of Brandon Sanderson, has taken Sanderson’s advice and ideas and put them into practice. The world of Promise of Blood has three major types of magic and intimations of even more. Knacks are limited in scope like magical abilities, like being able to never sleep, or to have perfect memory. The Privileged are the classical elemental magic users, being able to perform a variety of effects by manipulating the elements. The Privileged are nearly all royalists and thus are major antagonists for Tamas. Powder Mages, a relatively new innovation in terms of magical development, is the ability to use gunpowder as a type of mana, and to do a variety of effects with firearms and ammunition. I was reminded of gun mages from Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms universe although McClellan has some nice innovations of his own. There are other types of magic, much less well defined, that we see in the course of the story as well. The conflicts and rivalry between the various practitioners and magic types is a nice social touch.
The writing in Promise of Blood is not scintillating, and at some points the plotting feels a little off-gear to me. I didn’t have much reaction to the prose style overall. I chalk this up to first-novel syndrome more than anything. The major weakness in the novel, one I kept coming to time and again in reading this, regards the female characters. There is a female point of view character: the governess-turned-laundress named Nila. I have not mentioned her previously because her story line simply did not work for me whatsoever. It felt (at best) as a device so that the reader could learn a piece of information about Tamas’ character from the outside, and (at worst) it was a poor choice of viewpoint. This is doubly frustrating because of Vlora, a capable powder mage in Tamas’ army, and apparently the former fiancee of Taniel. I dearly, dearly wanted a point of view from her. I have so many questions about what it’s like for a woman to be in an army, to be a powder mage, and to see her perspective on her relationships with Taniel and Tamas. I think the novel could have been much stronger had it done so. There is a female character, a barbarian named Ka-poel, whose role in the book appears solely to save Taniel time and again. Her mute nature, instead of being an interesting vehicle for character development, was more cumbersome than helpful.
One thing I want to point out is that there is a bit of a bait-and-switch towards the end of the book. Without getting into spoilers, events reveal that what the theme and layout of what the universe of Promise of Blood is about is radically shifted into a very different story. The novel begins with a look at what happens when a monarchy is violently overthrown, but a very different theme and problem emerges in the book, and the switch can be jarring.
Despite the significant weaknesses, the inventiveness of the world and the competing magic systems carried the day for me. I am extremely curious as to where the series is going, given the alluded-to change of perspective and theme. I will be watching to see if the problems in this first novel are ironed out in the next volume in the series.