“The age of kings is dead, Adamat, and I have killed it.”
Promise of Blood is Brian McClellan’s debut novel, and one that has already seen him hailed as one of fantasy’s rising stars. With an intriguing system of magic, a large cast of characters, and even a couple gods, all the pieces are in place for a truly legendary book. And while Promise of Blood certainly delivers an entertaining read, certain pieces of the puzzle fail to fall into place.
Perhaps the most interesting about the novel is the setting in which McClellan chooses to place the story. It feels much like a typical Middle Ages fantasy world – only sped up to the industrial era. New is replacing old, and everything is changing in this setting. The book opens with what is symbolically the first step – Field Marshal Tamas leads a rebellion to overthrow the king. Only instead of taking the throne for himself, he and a committee of other interested parties take command, with the primary focus of their rule being the people, not the nobility. There’s even a union of labor workers, whose influence is not insignificant. This transition reflects the upheaval of the time, as old values are challenged and old powers begin to weaken.
The “revolutionary” theme of the story certainly doesn’t end with industrialization. After all, this is a fantasy book! Magic is also changing in this world, with the new “powder mages” threatening the old guard of sorcerers, known as “Privileged”. Privileged magic is reminiscent of stereotypical fantasy magic: requiring elaborate hand gestures, and resulting in some kind of elemental effect. This kind of magic is never truly explained, but it is never used in a Deus Ex Machina fashion. Gunpowder Magery is a far different concept, and the tension between the Privileged and powder mages perfectly represents the conflict between old and new in Promise of Blood. Powder mages have the ability to manipulate gunpowder and bullets, to the extent that their shots can be deadly accurate, while travelling for miles. They can also enter a powder trance by swallowing or snorting powder, a state in which they are stronger and faster, but which also comes with a price. A third kind of magic-user is the “Knacked”, which is less of magic, and more of a weak superpower, such as never needing sleep, or never forgetting anything.
There are three POV characters over the course of the story: Field Marshal Tamas, Powder Mage Taniel, and Inspector Adamat. Each of them has their own storyline, which interconnect and dovetail quite nicely to form the main plot. I must say I enjoyed each plotline the most at various points in the book; McClellan does a great job of keeping action going somewhere at all times. Tamas was a wonderful character – full of flaws and faults and conflicting motivations. There’s a past there, one that you can feel without ever even reading it. I also very much enjoyed Taniel, “Two-Shot” as he is called. He has to struggle with his loyalties, and some difficult events in his recent past add an irritable side to his personality. Oh, and he’s also Tamas’ son, and there are some sparks between them, too… Of the three points of view, I found Adamat’s to be by far the weakest. While his plotline may not have been lacking, I never found myself invested in his character. Despite all the danger he was placed in, I honestly didn’t mind if he made it out or not.
In terms of supporting cast… well, the results here are mixed too. Nila, a minor character with a few POV chapters, was distinctly boring. This is unfortunate, considering the distinct lack of female characters in the story. Olem, Tamas’ bodyguard, was excellent. His first interchange with Tamas was fantastic, and he is instantly appealing in a way no other character is. Ka-Poel and Vlora were both interesting characters, but both had their roles unfortunately downplayed due to certain circumstances. And I didn’t care for any of the Predeii, no matter how important they are.
The plot was extremely well done, tightly bound and gripping. Each scene moved the story along, and it was well paced throughout. However, there were some unfortunate flaws. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t like it when the first book of a series ends in a cliffhanger. Second book, sure. But something about the way this book ended rubbed me the wrong way, and I was heavily dissatisfied by the way very little of the plot had resolved by the end of the book. Secondly, I did not like the action scenes. They were slow, unfocused, and boring. I understand that action is considerably different when one is a sharpshooter in a time when guns took almost a minute to reload, but that doesn’t excuse the melee or magical combat scenes. It’s a shame, as these battles felt like a huge letdown after all the magnificent work McClellan had done to get to that point.
In conclusion, I found Promise of Blood to be mostly deserving of the praise it has received. A neat spin on the old fantasy clichés by leading them into their future, McClellan does a good job of leading his reader though a tight, well-thought out plot. His characters are a little hit-or-miss (always a possibility with such a large cast), and his action scenes are weak, but overall it’s a mighty fine novel.
Final Rating: 7.5/10