Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
Brian McClellan’s book is much more than you might expect from a debut novel. It has great characters, a very good setting, suspense, action and is engaging.
I am more a fan of swords and similar within a medieval setting in my fantasy, than guns in an industrial/black powder-setting. I bought the book mainly because he did a good job to promote it on reddit. It seemed interesting, with a great cover, but I did not expect it to be this good. In the end, I read the last third in one sitting. Thought I only wanted to read a chapter before going to bed I was up until 4 am, but it was worth it.
Promise of Blood
The story starts at a really interesting place. I am used to two different ways in which usurpation is played out:
- The Kingdom gets taken over, the royal family is killed, except one child. The story normally follows this survivor and his/her way to revenge. (Chronicles of the Necromancer)
- You have a cast of heroes and adventurer that have to dethrone an evil emperor or something similar. (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)
In Promise of Blood, the story begins with the aftermath of an usurpation. The nice, older man on the (great looking) cover has staged a rebellion, killed the king´s Privileged and judges the king and his nobility. The story revolves around Tamas trying to secure his rule against royalists and the Kez empire, his son Taniel chasing a Privileged and Inspector Adamat trying to figure out the last words of the royal cabal. These and more storylines are woven into a big picture of treachery, fighting, wars and gods.
The story keeps you engaged all the time, because it is fast-paced and full of action. But that doesn’t mean it is lacking in world-building and setting. The great characters are another reason that keeps you glued to the book. I just had one minor problem with the story:
When Tamas is attacked by a warder and he knows that there is a traitor in his council, he still goes to the hunt without any backup. I don´t think someone as strategically versatile and knowledgeable would not see the danger it presented. He goes into a huge forest, that seems to be easily accessible for everyone, with only his bodyguard Olem. I can understand that he grieves for his lost dog and it is an event he has to attend, but I think it doesn’t work with his character to go this unprepared.
Promise of Blood is set in a world of magic that has reached the age of black powder. Pistols and Rifles are the weapon of choice for the common soldier. Industry is starting to become increasingly important. Working unions are founded. With a very defensible position inside of a mountain range, Adro, one of the Nine, is the main focus. Other nations are only mentioned marginally or not at all. Except Kez, as the main enemy.
The magic-system is very thought out and interesting: Privileged are the main magic-user: very powerful mages that can topple entire building with a gesture. Knacked are people that have one very special ability. Olem, for example, has no need for sleep. This ability is very useful for a bodyguard. Somewhere in-between are the powder mages, who use black power to strengthen their bodies or manipulate it in other ways. They can explode black powder for example, or use it to accurately shoot their rifles over miles.
There are actually at least two more groups with magic powers: First the Predeii, ancient and powerful mages, nearly immortal. They called down the gods with their power and some are still alive, even after centuries. The other group is only represented by Ka-poel, who uses dolls for her magic. You can imagine it like voodoo-magic. There might even be another group that is able to wield something similar to magic: monks guarding Kresim Kurga. They at least have some power to fight Privileged and Warden (magically changed humans). You could count the gods too, but there isn´t much known about their powers yet. And well, they are the gods, aren’t they?
It is a very interesting setup, especially since the powder mages are so unique and powerful. This brings me to a problem I encountered when reading the story: The Privileged seem useless. Of course they can hurl fireballs and such, but every really big fight is between Predeii. At the end, Ka-poel kills dozen of Privileged with her dolls and makes it look like child´s play. Even powder mages seem to be much more powerful, not only because of their incredible range with rifles. Tamas beats his nemesis and kills a number of soldiers while he is at it. He floats bullets around and they follow his will, which seems a very strong ability. Of course the book mostly follows the strong powder mages, but the Privileged seem week in comparison to everyone else.
This book is dominated by great and believable characters. Everybody has their flaws, which makes them the more human.They are unique, every POV-character adds a new voice and view. I would have loved to have some more insight into some of the minor characters, but that only shows how great Brian McClellan´s cast is overall. He made me feel about the characters and their quirks; and I mean about all of them, not just the main characters, even the second row you don´t get to know as much about.
Tamas is a great character. He feels alive, his actions are (mostly) comprehensible and his role as the greatest military mind in the Nine is fitting. His flaring temper and the inability to connect to his son, paired with a healthy dose of revenge, makes Tamas feel whole as a character. The interaction with his bodyguard Olem made me laugh at times and when Tamas was fighting at the end I was as enraged, cheering him on and hoping he could kill the bastard!
The first character you get to know, drawn into a rebellion and a dangerous hunt for answers. Because of his intelligent and pragmatic personality I grew to like him. In contrast to other main-characters he is not very strong or dangerous, thought you should not underestimate him either. He uses his wits and quick thinking to become one of the cornerstones of Tamas´ search after the traitor, which places him in great danger. His ability to surprise those that want to use him makes him a very entertaining personality and you feel for him and the family he tries to protect.
The most interesting character of them all. Maybe he is interesting because he is more in line with my own age. But you can not deny his impact. He is a broken person, that is the first you learn about him. Having waged war for years at his age, especially covert operations behind enemy lines, has left an imprint on him. Known as Taniel-Two-Shot, he already build his own legend, but he has lost things along his way. Cheated on by his fiancé and a father that seems cold, that gives him the order to kill his only friend, he is drawn to powder. As a powder mage, he can use the black powder to strengthen his own body and senses, but too much leads to dependency. It is amazing how Brian McClellan shows Taniels plunging into addiction and his fight against it. Shown only in little gestures it has an even greater impact.
His interaction with Ka-poel is great too, thought I find it sad she often fades into the background. She is another great and interesting character. The only thing about their relationship is the problem with her being mute. Don´t misunderstand me here. I like it, it makes her even more unique. But I do not understand why they have no sign language developed between the two of them. You should think that leading a group of soldiers into guerrilla warfare would require extensive sign language to coordinate when you can´t make a sound to alert the enemy. I would have liked to see that developed into a proper sign language between Taniel and Ka-poel. Right now it sounds more like me, when I would try to communicate with someone that doesn’t know the languages I speak (granted, they do it better, but you still get the idea). Since they already know each other for years, I think they should have a better way to communicate and more knowledge about each other. I mean their war business should have given them enough time to try to develop a means of communication between the attacks.
This book is something you have to read. There is no way around. You can scream and argue all you want, but this book is a must-read and I believe that Brian McClellan will get much more recognition when people realize that. Even if you aren’t in the least interested in black-powder and industrial age-fantasy, I will still recommend this book. It´s characters are just too strong and it´s story too interesting to pass it up. There is so much potential in this series and I can´t wait for the next installment to arrive. For me, he already is part of the big names of fantasy and I hope he is as much a writing-robot as Brandon Sanderson, because I want to read more of his writing.
You can read the first chapters here for free. And the blurb and cover for the second book already makes me want to own it. It will be hard to wait until February 18 next year.