Saturday, May 4, 2013

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

My relationship with Promise of Blood is complicated in the way teen aged love affairs are complicated. Let me explain. I've been eyeing McClellan's debut from the first time I heard about Brent Weeks calling it "flintlock" fantasy and thus got my first look at the cover and blurb. Sounds promising right? Well like those aloof unattainable ladies of my teen aged years, Promise of Blood just wouldn't look back. I entered contest after contest, emailed the publisher, searched Net Galley to no avail. Then insult came to visit and added to my injury. A close friend had won a signed ARC! The nerve, the betrayal. But I was steadfast, finally managing to get a copy from NetGalley on release day. The object of my affections was mine. So what's the end of the story you say? Well, to put it like I might have 25 years ago. She's just as pretty as I thought. We had a good time, but I just don't know. Will I take her out the next chance I get? You bet your sweet ass.

And the blurb that started this mess:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.
It's a bloody business overthrowing a king...Field Marshal Tamas' coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas's supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.
It's up to a few...Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.
But when gods are involved...Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should...

Pretty shapely little package, isn't it. Well have no fear, McClellan delivers on the promise of the concept and the fantastic cover. Promise of Blood is exactly what you'd expect, an action packed thriller full of bullets, bad-assess, and blood. But rated PG-13, like all teen aged girl-friends should be.

All kidding aside, McClellan tells an engaging story, with a surprisingly diverse cast (in most cases), multiple intriguing magic systems, and a pleasant mix of action, mystery, and old school fantasy. All of this set in an historical time period (albeit, a fantasy equivalent) that gets scarcely any love from the genre. It's a compelling setting too, with the tension of not only the political revolution but also a magical and industrial one. Those forces power the majority of the conflict in the novel, no battle ground left unsurveyed. There is plenty of military action, political espionage, gods, monsters and enough magical fireworks that you just might think it is Bastille Day.

That's where McClellan really shines. It's no coincidence at all that McClellan, as a former student of Brandon Sanderson, delivers a variety of intricate and well designed magical abilities for his characters to play with. It would be easy to write off McClellan as Sanderson 2.0, but that would be a mistake. While McClellan's powder mages do seem to be a slightly different take on the Allomantic coinshots from Sanderson's Mistborn novels, the pitting of this type of magic against the aristocratic elemental magic of the Privileged takes the mechanical and turns into something more thematic. The fact that gunpowder is also addictive, and one of the main viewpoint characters is definitely in the need of a step or twelve is another nice touch. There's even more magic at play as well. Lesser magical abilities such as the ability go without sleep indefinitely are possessed by another group called the Knacked, and there is the mysterious magic of the savage Ka-Poel and a mad god or two thrown in for good measure.  As settings go, this is one of the more interesting ones I've encountered in the category of epic-fantasy in quite a while.

His character choices are an interesting mix as well. With Field Marshall Tamas and the investigator Adamat both well beyond the age of the typical farm boy protagonist, McClellan manages to make compelling action heroes of both older men without resorting to stereotypical over the hill Hollywood style. Tamas is no Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, though I can detect an older, wiser Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Adamat is wisely more Watson than Holmes, but his dogged investigations prove to be a wonderful vehicle that McClellan uses to avoid heavy handed info-dumping. It's interesting that the most stereotypical character of the cast, Tamas' son, the legendary Taniel Two Shot, leaves me the coldest. McClellan packs his story line with interesting threads, the betrayal that ended his engagement, his strained relationship with his father, his growing attraction to the mute savage Ka-Poel, and his struggles with powder addiction and more. But try as I might, I always longed for more of the Tamas and Adamat viewpoints. Perhaps there was just too much going on in Taniel's chapters for any one element to really take hold. I'm not sure, but I hope that Taniel's chapters sharpen their focus in the sequel.

The only real miss I can find in McClellan's choices thus far has been in the almost complete lack of female voices in the novel. There is one small female focused point of view in the novel, that of Nila, a laundress who  has lost everything as a result of Tamas' coup in the early chapters. I felt that Nila's chapters were under used and developed in comparison to the male centered counterparts. I suspect that could be a result of fear of getting it wrong, a criticism often leveled at epic fantasy writers in the post GRRM era.  But I think McClellan would do well to face that fear head on. After all, he's placed several compelling female characters with definite agency in the background. Here's hoping we see some of them at the forefront with the boys in McClellan's sequel, The Crimson Campaign.

The action is well handled, with McClellan turning in the same kind of bullet time worthy fight scenes that you would expect from a Brett, Weeks, or Sanderson. I think a little more grit would do the writing some good, anchoring it more in the smoke and bloody faces of revolution, if you will. But that's nothing more than a matter of preference. The pacing falters later in the novel, losing the tension between the increasing action of some threads against the more sedentary pace of others. Something I have no doubt will improve as McClellan gains his own balance as an up and coming writer to watch.

McClellan's reputation as a fantasist to watch is well deserved. Promise of Blood has a lot going for it. Easy on the eyes, great personality, and can cut a rug with the best of them. I'm not convinced she's quite ready to take home to meet the parents, but I'll definitely be asking for a second and probably a third date. You never know she might just be a keeper.


  1. I thought the female voices issue was the biggest drawback I found, too. But I am interested in reading more in this world, definitely.

  2. It's not a perfect debut, but definitely promising. I recall having similar feelings when I first read Brent Weeks, and we all know how well that turned out.