The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick catches a reader with grotesque characters, a dark setting resembling 16th century Venice or Genoa, and interesting fights with rapiers. I found it especially refreshing to have a protagonist that is a so called Orfano: That means he has a physical impairment. All the Orfano in this book have a different impairment that makes them different from the other humans. While they get the best education possible and can rise to high standing in the society, they are hated and often don’t live to become very old. Lucien ‘Sinistro’ di Fontein is an interesting protagonist fighting against the animosity directed towards him. He is a young man the reader can relate to.
The setting is interesting because it is different than common setting used in many fantasy novels. The dark and brooding atmosphere is enhanced by the horrible disfigurement of the characters and an insane King and his scheming Majordomo. Ravens play a role too, and they are the fitting harbinger for this story. The feeling of reading about a world set in 16th century Venice comes from the use of rapiers as seen on the cover and the threading of words from the Italian language. The protagonist’s nickname ‘Sinistro’ for example refers to him being left-handed.
While the setting paints a great picture in the beginning, it soon became clear that it is very limited. Most of the story plays in Demesne, with the King’s Keep and the sanatorio, and the short while we get to see more of the land, there doesn’t seem to exist much. Demesne itself seems to only consist of the King’s Keep and the four important houses, nothing else. Most of the time there are only the important characters and a number of nameless servants and guards. At some instances the nobility comes together, but where all the people come from stays a mystery. Even the four great houses featured more extensively seem to only consist of their heads and some important persons, but nothing else. The book has a very narrow tunnel vision only on Lucien and everything else doesn’t get mentioned much. That made it hard to actually picture the whole island of Landfall the story plays on.
This tunnel vision extends to the characters too. While we get a very good look at Lucien, the rest of the characters seem bland. Only the antagonists manage to convince. Even Lucien’s love interest stays a very unmemorable character and not all of her actions were comprehensible. While Lucien is a good protagonist, there is the problem with his age. The story features two storylines: present and past. The present storyline has a lot of action in it, because everything is going downhill for Lucien from the start. Its duration is only a couple of days, but more happens than in the past storyline, which features selected scenes from Lucien’s childhood and youth. The problem is that ten or twelve-year-old Lucien sounds the same as eighteen-year-old Lucien. He doesn’t sound like a child and even with his education and the animosity that probably made him grow up faster he should still sound different than as a man.
The two storylines present another problem. The storylines rotate every chapter, so after each chapter of present comes a chapter with Lucien’s past. Because the present storyline has most of the action and creates the tension, said tension is often lost while reading the chapter about Lucien’s past. This is enhanced because the author often uses cliffhangers at the end of many chapters from the present storyline. While that worked to enhance the tension in the beginning, it got stale pretty fast. Not all chapters from the past storyline are interesting either and some don’t seem to hold anything important for the main story. That drags the whole story down. I would have liked it more if the focus had been on the present storyline, because these chapters were much more interesting than the ones in the past storyline. I like reminiscences because they can show important things that enable the reader to understand the characters and the world better, but in this book they were overdone.
What was done right though were the action scenes. Especially the fighting with rapiers was done right. While Lucien is a good swordsman, he is not some sort of superhuman. This is shown very well in the book and against stronger opponents Lucien has to use more than his sword to get out alive. The fighting is intense and counts as the highlight of the book. It has only one flaw. While it is great to see Lucien struggle realistically against opponents, sometimes it feels like he doesn’t really defeat his enemies with his own power, but has to rely on chance.
The prose shows signs of greatness. Some of the sentences were impressive and made me like the book more, but the contrary exists too. The thing I noticed the most were repetitions. They were at times so glaring as to hamper my enjoyment. And I’m not one that looks very closely at the prose. If I notice such things, others will too.
As the last point of interest I wanted to make you aware of something I normally leave out: Errors in the kindle version. This ebook needs another proofread. There are a lot of errors of all kinds. Definitely more than are acceptable. Even the blurb on Amazon has a mistake. The protagonist is called “di Fontein” in the book, not “de Fontein” as in the blurb. Or the “sanatorio”, which is “Sanatoria” in the blurb. Some of these mistakes could have easily been found had someone just searched the document in word or whatever was used. If you own the kindle you can look it up yourself. Go search for “Demense” instead of “Demesne”, a rather easy typing error to make. Such errors should have been found before the book was published.
But the reason I’m annoyed and glad I got the book through a promotion for only 2.99€ is that part of the book is missing. Yes, you read that right. Part of the book is missing. Some paragraphs start in the middle of a sentence and lack some action that connects them to the paragraph before.
You’ve no heart at all. The lies you tell ! Better we kill you tonight.
the bucket of water.
‘No wait—‘ was all he managed […]
This is an actual quote from the kindle version. As you can see “the bucket of water.” is neither a full sentence, nor a full paragraph. While it is easy to see what happened in the missing part, that is not alway the case. I’ve found a dozen such missing parts and I don’t see any reason how they could have been overlooked. I’ve already contacted Gollancz a week ago (24. March) and they promised to look into it and fix the issue. I hope the fix comes soon, so others get to read the complete book.
While I wanted to bring this to your attention, it has no effect on the rating.
All in all, I enjoyed reading the book. It’s not the best I’ve ever read, but it does have interesting ideas. Some parts of the story dragged on, others were great, especially near the ending. It is a book that balances good and bad parts to land squarely in the middle. Though I would have liked if it had not felt like a book before its final proofread.