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Underground Reading: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

Promise-of-bloodPromise of Blood (2013) is Brian McClellan's debut novel, and the first book in a series - The Powder Mage Trilogy. Both the novel and the series are apt descriptions of the book's contents: Promise of Blood is about setting up a vast conflict and, boy, it really likes the premise of 'Powder Mages'.

And who wouldn't? The world of the trilogy is a fun one - a 'flintlock fantasy' that's notably different from the normal faux-Medieval fare. There are traditional wizards swanning around ("Privileged") as well as folks with distinctive magical talents ("Knacks"). But central to the story are the Gun Mages, wizards with a predisposition for all things 'splodey.*

Two of the three central characters are Gun Mages as well. Promise of Blood opens with Field Marshal Tamas overthrowing the monarchy in Adro. He (and his backers) are sick and tired of lazy, indolent, propped-up-by-Privileged tyrants. Tamas' intentions are good, but the road to hell is paved with decapitated Royalist civilians.

The second Gun Mage is Taniel, Tamas' son. He's been abroad for a while, annoying enemies overseas by shooting their Privileged in the head. Taniel comes with a reputation ('Two-Shot'), some baggage (he caught his fiancee in bed with another man), a drug addiction (he snorts gunpowder - it gives him a magical kick and he could quit any time he wants he promises stop staring) and a sidekick (Ka-Poel, we'll get back to her). Taniel is sent by his father to battle external threats: primarily the pending invasion by the Empire of Kez.

The final point of view is Adamat, an elderly investigator. Initially Adamat is recruited by Tamas to uncover the meaning behind a cryptic phrase uttered by each and every dying member of the old King's Privileged. Later this mission becomes less esoteric and more political: Tamas is certain there's a traitor in his inner circle. Adamat's task is to find out who.

And thus, a tidy division of story: Adro has its enemies within, without and hidden from view, and these three men are tasked to destroy them.

This is my boomstick

Highly political fantasy in a slightly offbeat setting? Bring it on. And Promise of Blood didn't disappoint: the book was packed with swash, buckle and a fair bit of intrigue. Promise of Blood embraces the (admittedly mild) flaws of its characters and the (not so mild) amorality of their mission. Promise takes place in a world where tough men need to make tough decisions, often for the 'greater good' and just as often because they're ordered to - or need to stay alive. Tamas has to execute civilians. Taniel is ordered to assassinate his best friend. Adamat's loyalty and professionalism are constantly tested. This isn't a brutal book - our heroes are heroes, after all; striving to do the right thing. But it is a book that questions what 'right' means, and isn't afraid of relativity.

The overarching plot of Promise of Blood is, a bit like the book's notion of heroism, slightly and enjoyably off-kilter. The political wrangling aside, there's a big, dare I say "epic", story buried in the trilogy that's only hinted at in this first volume: gods (good ones and bad ones), ancient magics and even a prophecy or two. Yet, for the most part, the characters don't care. Sure, the Great Destined Apocalypse is happening, but Adamat's real problem is that he's badly in debt. And Taniel would love to learn more about the gods walking the world. He really would. But he's got drugs and a broken heart to worry about. Plus, you know, an army shooting at him... It isn't that Promise of Blood is doing anything particularly new with these massive, cosmic elements, but it did make me chuckle how little they really mattered to the characters.

I'll admit that the magical system was a bit kitschy - and not particularly well-developed, but it is a hoot. There's a lot to be said for fights that feature Taniel jamming gunpowder up his snooter and then turning into Super Star Mario. Fantasy settings have always been wary of introducing guns: they're the great leveller and disproportionately more deadly than, say, swords. A fantasy in which the noble Paladin is plinked off his horse from 70 yards away by an elderly gnome - probably not what readers have in mind.

There are a couple ways around this problem. In (good) Westerns, for example, there's surprisingly little shooting. If you think about it, there's a reason that the high noon duel is always the climax of a Western - because the assumption is that, one way or another, the story is about to finish. By embracing the lethality, the focus is always on building up tension to the ultimate moment, as the fight itself can't be extended. Sadly, in epic fantasy, this just won't do - readers want continuous conflict, however improbable it may be.

Promise of Blood therefore gets around the difficulty of guns through a different method - not by making guns less lethal, but by treating them like any other type of pyrotechnic: big, furious, slightly ridiculous and very fun to read. In a world where people shoot lightning from their hands, guns are another way of making shit go boom. Shooting bullets is no different than flinging fireballs after all: you're hit by one and you die messily. As far as readers are concerned, the trick is to make sure the special effects are up to snuff. And Promise of Blood doesn't skimp on the fireworks.

Shooting blanks?

What didn't click in Promise of Blood?

The magic system was a bit of a mystical pot-luck. A sort of late-in-edition D&D handbook, chock full of niche specialisations. As well as the various types of wizardry mentioned above, there are also prestige classes - including Privileged that neuter other Privileged, whatever-the-hell Ka-Poel is, an odd order of monks and a sort of uber-Privileged called 'Predeii' that are supposedly extinct (yet falling out of the woodwork by the dozen). There are also magical items and tricks that are revealed as the book evolves - from stick-figure voodoo to shapeshifting to geases to nuclear bullets.

The magic qua magic didn't bother me, but the way it kept surprising the protagonists did. This isn't hand-wavey Gandalfian magic, after all - it is something researched, studied, manufactured and, in many cases, well-documented. Taniel, Tamas, Adamat are all well-travelled, well-read, intelligent men of the world. Even as military professionals alone, you'd think they'd be a bit more up to speed on the eldritch arms race. Yet despite the fact that magic is a known quantity, they seemed to be extraordinarily skeptical: like they weren't quite used to living in their own high fantasy world. 

And, of course, the women. Relatively speaking, Promise of Blood isn't too bad. The women in it are as follows:

  • Evil Predaii, who transforms herself into a cat and doesn't like people very much
  • A young laundress who devotes her life to the last (male) heir of the royal line. She's actually a POV character. I laughed at this SF Signal review, in which the reviewer couldn't remember her name... and then realised I couldn't either.
  • Vlora, the ex-fiancee who is a Gun Mage but mostly the ex-fiancee who broke Taniel's heart and he still loves her but can't bear to be close to her how could she do that
  • Ka-Poel the sidekick-shaman, who doesn't speak, follows Taniel around bailing him out of problems and is the most powerful wizard in the book

The evil Predaii is fine - she doesn't really have much motivation besides being evil, but she's the Big Bad of the book and chews scenery with the best of them. The laundress is a non-entity. I can only guess that there may be some sort of payoff in later books - else why would we follow her and not the kid? - but she really has no existence of her own in this book.

The real tragedy here is that the latter two characters are both defined by Taniel, yet could be more interesting than he is. Vlora and Taniel have been together for ages - childhood, training, etc. She's as impressive as Taniel is as a Gun Mage, with powers he can't match. It turns out that their relationship was essentially engineered by Tamas, who wants to 'breed' more Gun Mages. But while Taniel was happy in the trap, Vlora wasn't... and, for right or wrong, she did something about it. Sadly, we only see her through Taniel and Tamas' eyes, and they glimpse her as a failure. Were the perspective reversed, we'd get a different story. Alas - she's stuck as the cheatin', heart-breakin' ex-girlfriend, and Taniel is her 'victim'.

Ka-Poel is even more of a shame. She is the most powerful magic-user in the book, and what fragments of information we receive hint towards a fascinating childhood. She, not Taniel, is the one that stops the bad guys and gets things done. Yet neither her loyalty nor her power are never interrogated. Again, simply as a soldier, it is ridiculous that neither Taniel nor Tamas spend more time trying to figure out the most powerful weapon in their arsenal.

And as a character? Well... she's a sidekick, never heard (she's mute, remember?) and rarely seen. Taniel's relationship with her is quasi-romantic, and the book treads on dubious ground as he juggles awkward leering with descriptions of her looking like she's 14. (She's 19, so, yay? But she looks 14? But he still leers? Or something? It never goes full-throttle dodgy, but it is uncomfortable to have any sort of romantic set-up begin with one person thinking the other is too young, and then later reappraising.) Again, second-guessing the series, it seems like she is building up to a more major role - hopefully in her own right, as well as Taniel's competent shadow. But from what we've seen so far, she's (bizarrely) unappreciated.

Ready... aim... 

Let's run THE GEMMELL GAUNTLET, shall we?

'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:

  • Secondary world: Yes. 
  • Traditional: Yes, but. Part I. As noted above, there's a big traditional story here: big climactic stuff on the horizon, empires of good and evil, prophecies and a new age and stuff. But this is also a book that begins with the overthrow of a monarchy** - a shot across the bow; a warning that the hoary old staples of epic fantasy might not be so safe.
  • Heroic: Yes. Everyone does, eventually, do the right thing. I think Promise of Blood offers up some tough choices, but ultimately, they all choose to Save the Cheerleader. Arguably this book is morally relative, but I don't think it goes that far - the revolution may be bloody, but the bad guys want to destroy the world. There's a pretty clear compass.
  • Epic: Yes, but. Part II. The big stuff happens, but, again, as noted above, folks have their own problems. Eventually they all start marching in parallel, but, for a good chunk of the book, Promise of Blood is the tale of three heroes who are doing their damndest to ignore the Prophesy.
  • High fantasy: Magic, magic everywhere. Just not quite locked down yet.

'Excellence' criteria:

  • Entertaining: Yes. Even beyond snort-powder-bend-bullets bonkerskablooey, this is a really nicely paced novel that kept me moving from scene to scene. No slow parts to Promise.
  • Innovative: Yes, but. Part III. The setting is neat, but not particularly noteworthy (as innovation) on its own. The innovation comes from the interaction between high fantasy tropes and a more 'modern' world. In Tolkien, the highly-skilled governing body of Gondor is removed because only the divinely-ordained High King can fight the Big Bad. In Promise of Blood, the divinely-ordained monarch is guillotined in the opening pages. The 'but' is that we're still clearly on the same overall path. But we have new rules on how we're going to get there.
  • Reactionary: Yes, darnit. I keep sketching little diagrams on my notepad, but I'm not entirely sure how to fix the hierarchy of fail. Is it better to have no women at all, or women that are only there as plot points? Which is worse, women as sex objects or women as the alien, soul-devouring other? With a cast of plot points, I think Promise dwells somewhere on the outskirts of fail territory. I'm genuinely optimistic about its sequels, but, as a text on its own, Promise has frustrating, if not damning, issues. 

Promise of Blood is a good one. It lives up to its billing: guns, magic, scheming and action - plus a pleasantly almost-subversive approach to high fantasy traditions. As a result, it is easily my favourite of the five DGLA finalists I've read so far.

What also struck me is that this is a very, very debut-y debut - appropriate to its name, this is a book filled with promise. The plotting is erratic, but the overall shape is clear and the pace is great. The characters are a little weak (especially the women), but there's plenty to build on. The magic system is patchy, but still immensely fun. All things considered, this is a good book that could even be the gateway to a great series. 

*In fact, gunpowder itself is magical in this world - it has an aura different from any other substance. That small fact opens up a fascinating kettle of fish, because gunpowder is, of course, man-made. This gives us, for lack of a better term - 'four-dimensional' chemistry: a world where there's simultaneous invention and discovery in both the natural and supernatural sciences.

**SPOILER: ...and ends with (effectively) the death of a god. From being shot in the face. If the opening was a shot across the bow, the close dropped a cannonball into the living room.