It looks as though the folks at Orbit are really pushing Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood, the first volume in The Powder Mage trilogy, on both sides of the Atlantic. So much so that I was looking forward to sitting down and giving what is heralded as a very original and winning fantasy debut a shot. Unfortunately, after a decidedly strong start filled with lots of potential, as the story progresses the plot loses a lot of its initial appeal. I actually stopped reading right in the middle to pick up Ian Tregillis' Necessary Evil instead, hoping that some time away from Promise of Blood might help me get more into it when I returned to finish it. Alas, it was not to be. . .
Interestingly enough, had I been sixteen years of age, this would likely have been my favotite book of the year. Promise of Blood is filled with badass black-and-white characters, a cool magical system, lots and lots of action, idealistic politics that make little sense, powerful but somewhat idiotic villains, and the world seemingly hanging on the brink of destruction. All in all, the perfect ingredients to satisfy any adolescent SFF readers. Trouble is, I'm older now. Not wiser by any stretch of the imagination, and according to quite a few people, not that much more mature. But a more demanding reader, yes.
It's a fast-paced affair with a myriad of cool battle sequences. On a number of SFF message boards, I saw that these turned out to be entertaining enough for some readers to overlook the novel's many flaws. Sadly, it wasn't the case for me. In the end, it took everything I had to reach the last page, so devoid of depth the plot had become. Brian McClellan acknowledges that he learned much from Brandon Sanderson and it shows. Indeed, the strengths and weaknesses of Promise of Blood are actually the same ones attributed to Sanderson's body of work. And as such, I'm persuaded that McClellan's debut will appeal to those who have fallen in love with Sanderson's books over the years. On the other hand, those who have a hard time getting into Sanderson's work will indubitably find Promise of Blood off-putting.
Here's the blurb:
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...
The worldbuilding is pretty thin in this debut. It appears that depth was sacrificed so that this aspect of the story wouldn't get in the way of the crisp rhythm that McClellan maintains through out his debut. The Powder Mages appear to be a fascinating concept, yet at no time throughout the book does the author elaborate on this seemingly complex magical system. How was it discovered? How was it developed. How did it become such a force to be reckoned with and now acts as a counterpoint to the Privileged, magic-wielders who can touch the Else. Why does sniffing gun powder provide them with such powers? À la Sanderson, Brian McClellan introduced what appears to be a brand new and very cool magical system. But unlike Sanderson, there is no attempt on his part to flesh it out and elaborate on it. And since this was by far the most intriguing aspect of Promise of Blood, it was quite disappointing that no light is shed on that particular concept. Very little little is learned of Adro, the land where the tale occurs. Virtually nothing is discovered about Kez, a neighboring land whose role in this story appears to be quite important to the overall plot.
The book begin with a military coup that overthrows the reigning monarch and the nobility. The narrative is dark, brooding, filled with tension and uncertainty. The first few chapters show a lot of potential, and it definitely felt as though was holding the SFF debut of the year in my hands. But once the nobles face the guillotines and a brief civil war ensues, Promise of Blood appears to come to an abrupt end and then starts over in a new direction. Unfortunately, in a matter of a couple of chapters the novel loses most of its appeal and becomes something that reminded me of old Forgotten Realms books that used to fill my bookshelves when I was a teenager. The storylines lose their focus and their sense of direction.
The characterization is probably what killed it for me. As I mentioned, Promise of Blood is filled with badass, well nigh invincible protagonists that always beat the odds, no matter how heightened the stakes. Not only are they badass, but a lot around them feels contrived to make them even more powerful. For example, Olem not requiring any sleep so he can be the perfect bodyguard, or Ka-poel's magical protection of Taniel, rendering him nearly indestructible. As such, McClellan's debut is a throwback to fantasy books/series from the 80s, at a time when realism wasn't considered an important aspect of a plot and it was okay for the good guys to beat whatever impossible odds were stacked against them and come out on top every time. There are four POV characters: Field Marshal Tamas, his son and also Powder Mage Taniel, Investigator Adamat, and a laundress named Nila. None of the POVs are compelling and I couldn't connect with any of the protagonists. Nila's sections seemed to be totally unnecessary, so I wonder if her storyline will gain more importance in the upcoming sequel. Taniel is a cool and dashing hero that makes Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden feel vulnerable. Following aftermath of the military coup, the characterization quickly becomes uneven and often feels directionless.
The supporting cast is for the most part unmemorable, especially the members of Tamas' council, who are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, each and every one of them. Truth to tell, Ka-poel is the only exception. But again, she is so powerful that it makes it hard to take her seriously. For the most part, again à la Sanderson, Promise of Blood is filled with black-or-white characters and there are no shades of gray to be found in any of them, or their grand ideals and motivations. Adamat a little less so, true, but the man is still a world away from being called a genuine three-dimensional protagonist. Add to the mix a cooking god and you've pretty much lost me at that point.
Unlike his mentor, Brian McClellan is not above using profanities. But for some reason, he refuses to stoop down to the level where using the word "fuck" is acceptable. Indeed, the f-word is replaced by the word "pit." As in "What the pit is going on?" or "Who the pit are you?" Like Sanderson, the author doesn't shy away from blood and gore, which you can find in industrial quantities (this debut is titled Promise of Blood, after all). And yet, in light of all the blood and violence, refusing to use the f-word seems to be a little incongruous, at least in my opinion.
The pace is nice and crisp. As I mentioned above, I have a feeling that the worldbuilding has for the most part been put aside in order to maintain this rhythm from start to finish. There's a lot of action and battle scenes in which the Powder Mages' abilities can take center stage. Unfortunately, beyond that fast pace and those exciting action sequences, I felt that McClellan's Promise of Blood offered very little in terms of depth and interesting characterization.
Having said that, I'm convinced that fans of Brandon Sanderson, R. A. Salvatore, and Brent Weeks will have a ball reading this debut.
Follow this link to read an extract from the book.