Review: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Brian G Turner

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Most fantasy is set in some form of pseudo-mediaeval pre-industrial agrarian utopia. So the idea of a book that is openly "flintlock fantasy", full of muskets, political revolution, and guillotines, in a society that includes a workers union, was very intriguing.

The story seems simple enough: Field Marshal Tamas has brought about a coup, beheading the king and nobility, in order to protect the interests of the common people. That's the easy part: keeping down royalist rebellions, dealing with treachery within his ranks, while facing invasion from a neighbouring kingdom, makes life much more challenging.

Added to this are strained relations with his son, Taniel Two-Shot, one of the best marksmen in the kingdom of Adro; and Adamat, a retired police inspector called in to break open the conspiracy against Tamas.

Between these three characters we see the story weave as they each face their own internal and external threats, trying to keep the peace in an increasingly violent world.

What is especially interesting is the role of magic in this industrial world.

A lot of fantasy magic is still rooted in RPG magic systems, and Promise of Blood has some of that - kings are protected by a cabal of powerful magic users.

What Promise of Blood adds uniquely to this is powder mages: men who are addicted to gunpowder, snorting lines of it where they can, to enter a powder trance where they manipulate bullets or gunpowder at will.

There are also Knacks - people who are aware of sorcery, and usually have some minor power. Such as not needing sleep, or the ability to pick locks without tools.

It all comes together to add interesting layers to the narrative, not least as Tamas's powder mages hunt down the royalist mages.

Oh, and there are gods.

Unlike some other novels, the world of Promise of Blood is rationalist. The idea of divine rule, protected by the gods, is seen as out-dated superstition. Yet like in an Erikson novel, the gods are ready and willing to interfere in the world of men.

What most books in this vein fail to ask is how any human civilisation can survive in a world with such powerful magics and gods walking the earth. McClellan answers it simply: they can't.

Promise of Blood starts with a strong pace and never lets up. It's an action-packed adventure with a lot of character and range of locations, and a constant sense of danger. It reminds a little of Joe Abcrombie's "The Blade Itself" in that regard.

At times there is very good characterisation, and the exchange between Field Marshal Tamas and his bodyguard, Olem, is absolutely brilliant. Other times, characters don't really have a chance to develop, because they are killed off so quickly.

I did have a few minor niggles with this book, as with everything I read. For example, for a Field Marshal, Tamas puts himself in danger an awful lot and doesn't seem to delegate some of his responsibilities as much as would be expected.

The single big criticism though - and this is the elephant in the room - is that if Tamas has killed the age of kings, then what has replaced it? What political change has the revolution brought? Is the kingdom of Adro now a republic? Because the government appears to be Tamas and a small group of powerful advisors, suggesting that Tamas is effectively a king in all but name.

It's not the sort of criticism to spoil the story - and frankly the pace of the book never gives you time to stop and ask questions.

And for the most part, Promise of Blood is a rip-roaring story and the use of muskets and powder mages works very well: Brian McClellan has dragged fantasy kicking and screaming into the industrial era with explosive skill and plotting.

It's a very enjoyable fantasy novel, and start to a trilogy, that sits very nicely among the new wave of modern fantasy authors who are making the genre much more interesting and inclusive.

Promise of Blood is a great read and hard to put down, and Brian McClellan is definitely someone to watch.

More information and reviews on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/035650199X/?tag=brite-21
 

Perpetual Man

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Thanks for the review Brian, I think when you mentioned this previously that I mentioned it had caught my attention too, and I was trying to decide whether to read it or not. On the strength of your comments it will move form a possible to a definite 'to get' book.

No idea when I'll read it though!
 

Ursa major

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The single big criticism though - and this is the elephant in the room - is that if Tamas has killed the age of kings, then what has replaced it? What political change has the revolution brought? Is the kingdom of Adro now a republic? Because the government appears to be Tamas and a small group of powerful advisors, suggesting that Tamas is effectively a king in all but name.
To be fair to the author, this issue (pun intended) is not unknown in the real world, with dynasties cropping up in the aftermath of revolutions (as we see, even today, in North Korea).
 

Brian G Turner

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Just to add, I'm not one for magic. I find it too "deus ex machina": put protagonist in a tight situation they cannot ordinarily get out of, and *whoosh* they do something magical, even by accident, which sets them free. Do. Not. Like. That.

I also find the idea of incredibly powerful magic in the world self-contradictory - for example, one problem I had getting into the Malazan series is that the world did not seem stable enough for civilisation to develop: there are too many gods and demi-gods roaming the world who can smash a city with a thought.

Brian McClellen's book is extremely self-aware about the issue, and in fact, forms the core peril of the book - if a god does walk the earth, it will only be to destroy it.

And the powder mages I thought were inspired - they are essentially dangerous musket-wielding junkies - and Field Marshal Tamas is one. But they are done with a real gritty panache.

It's a pretty decent debut overall, and it handles its themes of industrialisation and magic very well.

I especially liked the Adamant detective/thriller sub-plot within the overall politics and war storyline. At times, brutal, but very earthy. The scene when Adamant receives the little box is really quite superb - his attitude as he is offered it, and then his reaction afterwards - that was really good writing.

Another interesting point - but a spoiler:
I really like the fact that Tamas ends up being betrayed to some degree by both Taniel and Adamat. While their intentions were well-meaning and understandable, Tamas has to be forced to take action against each - Taniel refused a direct order from hiis commander, and Adamat caused Sabon to be killed - but the writer appears to be quite aware of this

ADDED:

To be fair to the author, this issue (pun intended) is not unknown in the real world, with dynasties cropping up in the aftermath of revolutions, as we see, even today, in North Korea.
Indeed - simply that with killing the nobility and using guillotines, I was expecting a mandate from the people and elections for senators, etc, for a new republic to follow. I found it odd that no mention was made of this, and that Tamas was still titled "Field Marshal" instead of "President" or similar.

However, it's clear in the book that the issue was forced, and not determined by a political ideal of equality. It was simply thinking of it afterwards, I found it curious that Tamas' actual political position wasn't addressed in the book.

That was my major criticism, but not necessarily a valid one. I just didn't want to post a glowing review without something that sounded constructively critical.
 
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Really glad to hear you enjoyed the book. I love seeing what different readers liked and didn't like, and hearing about the characters they enjoyed most.
 

Brian G Turner

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Would really like to find out more about your experiences and future plans for your writing - would you be happy for me to email you some questions, to publish the answers to the forums as an interview?
 
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Would really like to find out more about your experiences and future plans for your writing - would you be happy for me to email you some questions, to publish the answers to the forums as an interview?
Sure thing.
 

Perpetual Man

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Brian - looks like you dragged another author in ;)

I've just ordered it this morning from Amazon, to readas soon as I can clear some reading space.*

*sometime in 2017 probably
 
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