The Crown of the Blood is the first book in a new series of martial fantasy from Gav Thorpe. I'll admit - I went into this wary. Genre fiction of military bent has never been my "thing". 300 pages of spear-sharpening and endless descriptions of battles? All sounds like the epic, world-building tripe that I'm trying to avoid in fantasy. (Plus, is that Robbie Williams on the cover?)
My apprehension was misplaced.
I tore through The Crown of the Blood in one long sitting, after which, I felt ready to conquer an empire or punch a dinosaur of my own. The closest comparison would be the feeling I get from "24": this is about the uber-manliness of the manliest of manly men. Minimum chest hair count required for entrance.
What makes The Crown of the Blood good, and not just some sort of heteronormative counterweight to paranormal romance, is that the author defines masculinity in wide-ranging way. If not outright enlightened, this is still infinitely more progressive than a slavish adherence to the conventional fantasy definitions and, as such, makes for an unexpectedly thoughtful read.
The hero or, at least, the protagonist is Ullsaard, the most successful general of the empire of Ashkor (a vaguely Roman analogue). When we open the book, he's busy conquering some uppity savages - the general himself punching a dinosaur to lead the way into battle. Despite being a military genius and dinosaur-puncher-of-renown, Ullsaard has his frustrations. As he's not of "The Blood" (a direct descendent of the centuries-dead Ashkor), Ullsaard is forever a second-class citizen. The lowliest noble - one who could barely slap a newt - can order him around.
Ullsaard is still a success, with a huge estate and three lovely wives to ravish at will (and oh, ravish he does), but this pesky bloodline thing is keeping him from getting his conquer on. There's a big, bad dinosaur of a world out there, and Ullsaard wants to be the man to punch it. Although he's the undisputed master of the battlefield, as soon as politics come into play, Ullsaard is a little lost.
Ullsaard's drive for conquest leaves other lives paddling frantically in his wake. An ambitious trader finds himself turned into a major player overnight. A noble friend suddenly finds himself an outcast - his heritage stripped from him. Other friendly pawns and allies include Ullsaard's two sons (one a Machiavellian genius, the other the plodding, loyal type).
This is a rainbow of mandom and, truly, where the author deserves his due. Every man in Ullsaard's retinue is on his own quest - each proving their own worth in their own way. Some are out to accumulate wealth, others respect, and still others just want to earn a bit of peaceful rest. The author's pen portraits are skillful enough to make them all distinctive and, surprisingly, more than a little empathetic. Whether a man's strength is his cunning, his diplomatic skills or merely his strong right arm, they are all equal - the important distinction in The Crown of the Blood is between those that DO and those that DON'T. As long as you're a (dinosaur-punching) DO-er, you're worthy of respect. Needless to say, this makes a much more interesting story than one that only worships physical prowess.
The major omission of course, is der wimmenfolk. There are five women in The Crown of the Blood, all of whom are plot devices and not characters. There's the Noble Mom that Reveals the Mysterious Past, the three wives from Big Love (noble, bitchy & naive) and Random Lady Who Dies in Childbirth. As liberal as this book is in its definition of masculinity, it doesn't concern itself in the least with women.
Two other items of note - both positive:
First, I really liked the way that the author approached world building. Mr Thorpe gives the reader everything they need to know without giving in to the seduction of long paragraphs of exposition. This is a proper high fantasy world - rock people, dark sorcery, landships, riding panther and (of course) dinosaurs - but all of it is introduced naturally and casually. The story is never interrupted and the vital information is revealed by characters, and not by the author. For readers that do like the nuts & bolts, there's a detailed appendix, but I wound up skipping it.
Second, I'm impressed by the moral neutrality. Similar to the work of Tom Lloyd, this is a book about warring factions, each of them convinced that they are in the right. In one interview, Tom Lloyd cited his wargaming background as one cause of this approach to his work, rather than a more traditional RPG background with more "defined" alignment roles. Mr Thorpe has extensive experience writing for Games Workshop, which may have lead to a same approach. To paraphrase (badly), no one has ever marched into battle thinking they were the bad guy. Mr Thrope has that nailed. Even the proper "hero" of the book is a dodgy character - Ullsaard is convinced of his cause, but, ultimately, he is left in judgement before the reader.
The Crown of the Blood is a testosterone-fueled, dinosaur-punching of a book. It is a collection of violent conquests and vicious battles, from the fields of war to the equally-bloody arena of politics. It all culminates in a very surprising twist ending - the sort that neatly wraps up the book whilst getting readers excited for the sequels. Not I, Claudius, but definitely "Rome", this book is hairy, gory, sweaty, shameless... and perhaps even a little bit thoughtful.
The Crown of the Blood is out in September from Angry Robot books. Angry Robot also have a free, downloadable preview on their site.