The Fallen Blade is the first book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's new series, The Assassini. In it, he creates an alternate 15th century Venice, one plagued not just by the era's political upheavals, but also vampires, werewolves and witches. It is an exciting time to be alive (or undead).
For a relatively compact book, The Fallen Blade contains a sprawling cast of characters and no shortage of action. The ostensible lead is a mysterious young man called Tycho - who has, quite literally, appeared from nowhere (or ancient Scandinavia, same difference). Tycho is a gorgeous physical specimen with the face of an angel. However, that's where the resemblance ends. He's a vampire (Mr. Grimwood gains kudos not only for avoiding the word but also avoiding it in a natural way) and one with no self-control.
Anne recently drew parallels between vampirism and puberty and, in The Fallen Blade, Mr. Grimwood continues to link the two. Tycho is a raging pit of hormones - hungry, horny and hot - and he's straddling not two, but a half-dozen worlds. His distant Viking past is a series of upsetting memories, his life on the Venetian streets is confusing and lawless and his cultivation into high society is a series of unpleasant, non-sensical rules. Tycho is a perpetual conflict between his festering, murderous instincts and the brittle veneer of civilisation that has been lacquered onto him by his more patient friends.
Arguably the least patient of said friends is Atilo, the city-state's chief assassin. In a previous life (figuratively - unlike Tycho, Atilo is still very much human), Atilo was a warlord for the city's enemies. In a bid to save his home and family, he sold himself to Venice's previous duke, and proved his worth time and time again as a naval commander (publically) and assassin (privately). Atilo is a far cry from the ubiquitous hooded young bravos that grace genre covers. He's older, grumpier and more thoughful. In contrast to the testosterone-pit that is Tycho, Atilo is an iron rod of discipline. He's shockingly cruel to those around him, but that's because he's focused on the greater good. Of course, this invariably comes back to bite him (no pun intended, mostly), as it is the human relationships that repeatedly wind up saving the day - not Atilo's greater schemes.
Also of note are Giulietta (the closest Venice comes to a princess) and Roderigo (vaguely analogous to the city's chief of police). Both are pawns in the great game - Giulietta is repeatedly pursued, kidnapped, pursued again, kidnapped again and dangled as lovely bait in front of friend and foe alike. Roderigo is a piece of slightly lesser value, but he's caught between the discreetly warring factions of the city's oligarchy, trying desperately to preserve both the city's peace and his own neutrality.
To these four characters (and a half-dozen others) fall the task of saving Venice from its enemies within and without. The city's streets are filled with werewolves and gangs, every dark alley packed with assassins and alchemists. Outside of its walls, Venice's status as an independent power means that it is caught between empires, stuck tenuously balancing enemies in order to preserve its freedom.
The setting is magnificent - Mr. Grimwood indulges himself in the tiny details of statuary and dress. But his Venice isn't world-building for its own sake, it is a matter of making the stakes abundantly clear in the book's dangerous game. If the city is to fall to pirates/gangs/Germans, it isn't an academic matter - it is a case of losing a uniquely brilliant culture, and one that, in 1407, is already indescribably ancient.
Not that the stakes are even necessary. Although his portrayal of the city has been justifiably praised in other reviews, I found that Mr. Grimwood's political maneuverings stole the show. The undead are a dime a dozen, but books that can actually dramatise 15th century Mediterranean politics in an intriguing way are much rarer finds. This also says volumes about the author's ability to integrate the supernatural in a seamless way - I was less interested in the fantastical existence of werewolves than the murky realities of who was financing their operation. Probably the closest comparison for me would be John Ford's award-winning The Dragon Waiting - which also combined genre and period politics in a way that emphasized the latter. That's a book I've read over and over again without finding a literary heir - Mr. Grimwood may have just provided it.
In fact, the only bits I didn't enjoy of The Fallen Blade were those moments when it slipped into the wholly supernatural - mostly championed by A'rial, a demonic young witch with plot-bursting occult powers. Tycho and his lycanthropic foes fit into the dirty machinery of the era, more pawns in the great game, but A'rial's awkward near-omnipotence threatens to flip the board off the table entirely. I could see how she is a necessary evil, but not one I particularly enjoy.
The Fallen Blade is a twisted, Machiavellian, complicated and ornate book about survival and the terrible lengths people will go to for power. It may dress itself in the trappings of an angel-faced vampire assassin, but readers expecting Brent Weeks will be stunned to find Tim Powers instead. And even that is unfair - political, compelling, dark and urbane, this is a unique and stylish book that belongs wholly to Mr. Grimwood.