When a few years ago I saw this book mentioned on one of the periodic showcase posts on John Scalzi’s blog, I was immediately intrigued and did not waste any time in seeing for myself what this novel was about. Despite enjoying both the story and the writing, however, I never managed to move forward with the series, rekindling my interest only when a couple of months ago Orbit Books offered me the chance of reading and reviewing the first volume in Brian McClellan’s new series, Sin of Empire.
On hindsight, I believe I now understand the reasons for my procrastinating, but they have been completely vanquished by this author’s new novel and the fresh enthusiasm for his world engendered both by Sins of Empire and some of the prequel novellas I’ve read since then. So it was only fitting that I start again with the first book in the Powder Mage series, and I must admit that re-reading Promise of Blood, after getting to know better some characters and their background, was a much more satisfying experience.
This is an unusual world for fantasy, because it’s not based on a medieval-like setting, but rather a period reminiscent of the late 18th/early 19th Century, although it does possess its own forms of magic: at the top of the pyramid stand the Privileged, whose ability in mastering the elements makes them quite powerful – they offer support to the king’s rule and form powerful alliances called ‘cabals’, that are considered nearly invincible. Then there are the Powder Mages, to whom gunpowder lends great stamina and skills, not least the ability of floating a bullet well past its normal trajectory, and of directing it with accuracy. Last are the Knacked, people with minor abilities that can however turn quite useful, if correctly employed.
As the story in Promise of Blood starts, Field Marshal Tamas brings to fruition the coup he’s been orchestrating with his allies: the present king’s rule brought the realm of Adro to the brink of disaster, with poverty and hunger beleaguering the people, while the forthcoming Accords with neighboring Kez will place Adro under the Kez political and financial thumb. In one fell swoop, Tamas is able to kill most of the royal cabal of Privileged and to summarily judge and execute the king and the higher ranks of nobility: the use of guillotines for this final stage of the coup is what lends a strong French Revolution flavor to the novel. Changing a country is however a difficult business and Tamas finds himself battling on several fronts while trying to resurrect his country’s economy, keeping the Kez and their expansionism at bay and thwarting some attempts on his life, the latter pointing at a traitor among his allies. The Field Marshal therefore employs the services of former inspector Adamat (a man with the knack of eidetic memory) and sends his own son Taniel, a highly skilled powder mage, in pursuit of the last surviving king’s Privileged, while dealing with the problems of running a country and unraveling long-standing mysteries, again mixing mundane matters with magic in a compelling blend.
The background for Promise of Blood is a very interesting one, thanks to the combination of ordinary and supernatural I mentioned above: we have people wielding magic alongside common soldiers and servants, merchants and accountants, and through the various phases of Inspector Adamat’s investigation we have the opportunity of a closer look to Adran society where, for example, one of the major players is a workers’ union (something almost unheard of in the historical period that inspired the novel); or a powerful guild of assassins, the Black Street Barbers known for its silent efficiency, who are allowed to operate unhindered. One of the elements I most enjoyed was the balance in the abilities afforded by gunpowder: a powder mage can draw great strength and resistance, or improved sight, from consuming it, not to mention the possibility of literally guiding a bullet well past the trajectory imposed by mere ballistics. And yet there are counterweights to this: not only in the fact that weapons are of the flintlock kind, and therefore able to shoot only one bullet at a time, so that a powder mage’s skills cannot be turned into a convenient deus ex machina, but also the use of powder can become addictive, not unlike any other drug.
As far as characters go, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite: he’s a somewhat hard, uncompromising man, but he also possesses a strong sense of justice and the willingness to make difficult choices for the common good. Having learned more about him and what makes him tick through the novellas I’ve read, it’s easier to understand his anger toward the former ruling class of Adro, although most of the times it’s a coldly calculated anger he knows how to channel, both for himself and the people he wants to lead toward a different future:
The people want blood right now, not words. They’ve wanted it for years. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. That’s why we came together to pull Manhouch from his throne.
His son Taniel is more difficult to relate to: both now and on my first read I saw him as something of a whiner, a boy looking for his father’s approval, and inclined to sulk when he doesn’t receive it in sufficient amount. If on one side I understand how difficult it would be to be the son of such a man, and to find oneself walking in such renowned footsteps, on the other I constantly felt the need to slap some sense into Taniel, especially when he pitched himself deeper into his powder addiction to numb the pains of the world, both the real and the merely perceived ones.
The pace of the story is fairly quick, alternating between Inspector Adamat’s investigation, political maneuvering in Adro, the looming Kez invasion and the obscure threat of god Kresimir’s return on the wings of an old prophecy that some Privileged seem determined to bring to fruition: the story flows pretty quickly between these different events and builds to a spectacular climax that however leaves many doors open for future developments. With such a premise, as I said, it seems strange I did not feel compelled to continue sooner with the series, and I believe now that the main reason is the imbalance in characterization: unlike the first novel of the new series, or the prequel novellas, Promise of Blood does not seem to care much for female characters, and in a world where women can even choose to enroll in the military this does not come across too well.
Let’s examine some of the women who people this novel: Lady Winceslav, one of Tamas’ co-conspirators, is an influential person and the head of the mercenary group The Wings of Adom, and yet she’s easily duped by a young suitor; officer Vlora, Taniel’s fiancée and the central figure in Sins of Empire, causes the break of their engagement when he finds her in bed with another man; Ka-Poel, Taniel’s Fatrastan ally, is a powerful mage and a fearless fighter, but she’s mute; Privileged Julene is the quintessence of the Dark Lady, cruel and power-mad. And so on… I might be wrong, but I see a pattern here, one that might have subliminally influenced my decision to wait in discovering how the story progressed. Thankfully, I can now see how the author changed this course along the way, and I must admit that reading the new novel before returning to this older trilogy had a very positive impact on my point of view of the overall story, one that promises to lead me on a very interesting path.
This time around I will not wait long before moving forward…