Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: "Promise of Blood," by Brian McClellan

I’m still a little uncertain about the introduction of black powder into my fantasy, but I have to admit that Brian McClellan does it with flair in “Promise of Blood” ($23.99, Orbit).

The story opens with a coup. Field Marshall Tamas and a group of co-conspirators have overthrown the government and dethroned the corrupt king Manhouch who has spent the nation into poverty and plans to sign a deal with their enemies, the Kez, to bail it out.

After the king and all of the nobility meet their end at the guillotine, the tough business of rebuilding and running the country begins. Tamas is besieged by royalists, logistical problems and threats of war, but also troubled by a mysterious threat uttered by Manhouch’s Privileged, the sorcerers of the realm, as they died. They warned him that he could not escape Kresimer’s Promise.

What more havoc could the ancient god Kresimer wreak in Tamas’ already shaky world?

More and more authors seem to be trying to push fantasy into a more modern world, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s not that I’m opposed to guns – quite the opposite – but it makes me wonder about the progression and what other modern inventions will eventually make their way into fantasy worlds.

But just as I start to get all curmudgeonly talking about back in my day, along comes McClellan with an idea that surprises and delights. What if you didn’t really need the gun? Tamas and his cabal of powder mages don’t. Oh, mind you, they’re very good with those guns, but the tool is optional. Powder mages burn gunpowder for their magic, and if need be, they can toss the bullets into the air, burn a little powder with their magic, and send them on their way with results as deadly and accurate as a rifle.

And, of course, the Privileged – McClellan’s more traditional mages – hate the powder mages, and Tamas and his people aren’t too fond of the Privileged either, setting up warring wizards, which is usually a lot of fun for me.

But “Promise of Blood” is by no means a one-trick pony. While the powder mages are a nice touch and a big draw, there’s a very compelling human tale here, too, with a lot of layers, many of which are only touched on.

Tamas, in addition to his ruling troubles, is trying to deal with issues with his estranged son Taniel, who he needs to be successful. Taniel works through feelings about his promised bride Vlora, who has been unfaithful, and the savage child Ka’Poel he picked up on a recent campaign. Tamas’ lead investigator Adamat tries to do his duty and root out a traitor while also fearing for the safety of his family if he does his job.

Naturally, there also has to be plenty of intrigue, conspiracy and betrayal surrounding a coup, and McClellan delivers with a bit of a mystery angle thrown in.

All in all, “Promise of Blood” adds up to an incredible debut and a promise of good things to come. I’m still not sure I want modern weapons in my fantasy, but in McClellan’s case, I’ll definitely make an exception.

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