Curiously nerdy posts.
Another day, another book to review.
Yesterday I finished Promise of Blood, which is book one of The Powder Mage trilogy.
I learned about this book from one of those throwaway “best fantasy novels of the year!” lists that are all over the internet. It caught my eye, thanks to the cover and the concept. A trip to Amazon revealed tons of good reviews, so I took a chance on it. I’ve been pretty successful with this formula in the past, so I randomly try out new authors all the time.
I feel like the era of history featuring flintlock rifles and crisp white uniforms hasn’t been explored nearly as much as it should be in terms of making it fantasy fiction. So when someone takes it, and slaps a decently built world onto it, and features an unusual magic system*, I have to read it. I’m still waiting on a book that reads like an Alexandre Dumas novel, with fantasy trimmings. If no one writes it, I’ll have to try it myself soon enough.
*I feel like fantasy readers oftentimes put WAY too much emphasis on magic systems. If you want pseudo science in magic, you’re kind of barking up the wrong tree. That’s what sci-fi is for. As long as it makes sense at a glance, I’m not overly picky. Getting picky is how we got to the point of stuff being creative to the point of being silly, like where heroes eat metal to cast magic.
Anyway, I digress. The blurb for this novel reads like this:
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…
Intriguing, isn’t it?
The powder mages. This is probably going to sound slightly hypocritical, given what I just said about about not really caring about magic systems in fantasy novels. But if you’re going to name your trilogy the powder mage trilogy, it’d be nice to at least make powder mages interesting. And for the most part, I think McClellan succeeded in that.
What makes a powder mage? Well, from what I can tell, they’re all about gunpowder. Shocking, right? They can make it spontaneously explode from a distance just by willing it to be so, they can fire bullets from muskets and pistols and do cool things like be sniper accurate from miles away, or bend a bullet around a corner to find its target. Kind of like from Wanted, except ignoring physics even more.
Oh yeah, and they also snort it like cocaine. Apparently doing this gives them a powder trance, which heightens their senses, their reflexes, and gives them all sorts of other advantages. But it’s addictive, and can apparently burn them out if they use it too much. Eric Clapton would’ve made an amazing powder mage.
But all kidding aside, I thought this was a very cool and creative thing to do. The contrast of seeing powder mages battle regular plain old sorcerers in this novel made it clear how boring magic users have gotten at this stage of fantasy reading for me. It was refreshing to see something different.
The plot. This book starts from a very interesting point. One of the main POV characters, Field Marshall Tamas, stages a bloody coup against the king and existing nobility because they’re incompetent and don’t take care of the common man. He succeeds, and executes them all. But this pisses off royalists within the kingdom, and he has to fight a mini civil war to solidify himself as ruler.
That turns out to be the least of his problems, though, when it becomes clear that the king, as much as he sucked at ruling, actually did have a literal divine right to rule, like the old European kings believed they had. Killing the king, and ending the dynasty, pisses off a literal god, and now Tamas has a huge problem on his hands. An army, he can handle. He’s like Napoleon, except a little dumb when the plot demands it. But can he handle a god? Hmmm….
Anyway, the plot starts well, carries on well, and ends at a good spot. No complaints there.
The character nuances. When it comes to his characters, the author does a superb job in two respects.
1) They’re described really well. The minute you meet a character that’s important, he paints a picture of them that makes it easy to visualize them from the get go. That’s something I sometimes am lazy about doing in my own writing. Props for this, as many readers really like it.
2) Details. You learn that Taniel, a badass powder mage, likes drawing sketches of people. Sousmith, an old prizefighter/bodyguard, only speaks in short phrases because he’s taken one too many shots to the head in his lifetime. Inspector Adamat once ran his own publishing business, but had to give it up and come out of retirement as a detective.
Writers tend to forget sometimes how easy it can be to make their characters seem more real by adding somewhat small and trivial details to them. This author did not, and it goes a long way toward making his characters better.
The climatic scene. Not gonna lie, was not expecting what happened. Well played, sir. Well played.
This is where I list out what I like and don’t like about books I read. I decided to do it this way when I started this blog as a riff on the “best and worst of” format that is popular on the internet. In case you’re not sure what I just did there, I just added a ton of unnecessary exposition to this book review.
And, as you might guess, this book does the same thing. And it does it A LOT. And it is bad.
Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue in this book is not bad at all. It’s actually pretty good… except when a character suddenly starts talking like they’re being interviewed instead of actually having a conversation with another character. It happens every handful of chapters or so. Sometimes it’s made to explain what happened to a character’s wife. Sometimes it’s to explain the magic system just a little more.
But every single time, it’s completely unnecessary. I’ve said this multiple times on this blog, but it bears repeating: Writers, TRUST YOUR READERS. Sometimes, less really is more. I know you really want to make sure that we don’t miss some plot point that’s only been hinted at so far, but sometimes, it’s better off just staying in hints. It’s kind of like the old saying that sometimes, a woman in lingerie is more attractive looking to a man than if she’s completely nude. It’s the intrigue, the hint of something more to discover sometimes that works that part in our brains that makes us enjoy our entertainment just a little more.
It’s ironic that the two best instances I can think of storytelling done right in terms of not explaining everything outright are actually video games, and not novels. The Last of Us and Dark Souls both did a fantastic job at not spoon feeding you information you didn’t really need to enjoy the story. I haven’t read a fantasy novel in a long time that properly understands how to do this. If that’s not a troubling indicator, I don’t know what is. Kind of embarrassing to the genre, really.
POV bungling. As the blurb suggests, there are three POVs in this book: Tamas, Taniel, Nila, and Adamat.
Only Adamat is actually consistently done well. Which is amazing, because most of the mysteries in the book he is hired to investigate aren’t all that difficult for us to figure out. I genuinely really like character, and he was easily my favorite in the book.
I don’t get it. In Tamas, you meet him right at a majorly pivotal point in his life. He just killed a king, and took over a country. And yet, oftentimes, he’s written in a way that almost seems dull. This is a man with a lifetime of experience, in a scenario bursting with room for interesting thought, and he feels like a plot vehicle half the time. Even worse, despite being a tactical genius (one of the bad guys actually uses this exact phrase. Made me cringe), he makes some incredibly stupid decisions. He gets ambushed not once, but twice after he already knows someone is out to kill him. A tactical genius would at least show a bit more caution than just going about his business with only one bodyguard after that.
I understand the problem, really. The plot has to move forward somehow. I think it could’ve been fixed if the author had been willing to spread out his POVs a little more, sort of the way an author like George RR Martin does. He tried to with Nila, but went to her so infrequently it was always jarring when I was back with her tending to soldiers’ laundry. And her plotline is just left dangling. I know it’s the first in a trilogy, but everyone else came to a decent stopping point at the end of this book. Hers didn’t.
Anyway, I give this book ***. It was enjoyable, and entertaining for the most part, but those flaws I listed are huge. It left me with no strong motivation to go grab the second book, which is indeed out now. When that happens, I have little choice but to say it was good, but not really all that great. I probably will read the sequel as well…
I just might need a powder trance to do it.
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