Fantasy, like most genres, seems to move in phases. Whether it’s an increase in grit, an abundance of vampires, or just plain old sentimentalism, there are noticeable trends that rise and fall. This is not a bad thing as trends are fun and allow us to try more of what we like, but trends need trendsetters. I would assert that this current movement of guns, magic, and social upheaval starts with Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer Series, runs through Dishonored, and really hits its stride with Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan’s epic fantasy debut filled with gunpowder, trade unions, and the collapse of old ways—not just in-universe but in some of the well-worn tropes of the genre.
Promise of Blood is an Industrial Era epic fantasy, rather than straight-out steampunk, which would be the usual course when adding rifles to a speculative fiction tale. This, in a way, sets it apart. Rather than the industrialization seeming outlandish or escapist in any way, it feels grounded with the inevitable technological progress that comes with factories and firearms being matched with the social and economic issues that accompany a new, less feudal world. McClellan handles this superbly, keeping the world anchored to believable elements while still retaining the degree of alienness that is a part of the fantasy experience.
It opens on the day of a coup, the overthrowing of a corrupt and ineffective monarchy by a handful of enigmatic and powerful individuals, publicly led by Field Marshal Tamas, the past leader of Adro’s military and Powder Mages. Whether or not they will hold onto power in the face of Royalists, belligerent neighboring empires, or simple infighting holds the entire story together, a thread of desperation that is on the verge of snapping at any moment. Cryptic pleas from the Royal Cabal as they are slaughtered in their beds, enemies on the border, enemies in the streets, betrayal, lies; Promise of Blood is a frantic collapse of problems onto the protagonist’s shoulders—and it works.
Strong, if somewhat unvaried, characters
The three primary characters, Tamas, the leader, Taniel, his somewhat estranged son and resident badass, and Adamat, a grizzled private investigator with a perfect memory, each start the book more or less in the palace on the day of the coup. The narrative then spreads outward, Tamas primarily dealing with the political arc, Adamat the mystery arc, and Taniel being probably the most action-focused character of the three. McClellan uses their three storylines to keep the pacing and content balance just right, never wallowing too much on one arc and letting the others go to rust. He juggles not only the threads of the story, but also the various factions within and without Adro.
The characters of Promise of Blood are all well written, though the degree to which they are fleshed out is proportionate to their page time. Most of them are relatively similar, as the book spends a lot of time, and rightly so, around military men (and some women) on the various sides drawn up to duke it out over Adro’s fate. Tamas is irascible and brilliant and the evident star of the show, a burning cauldron of ambition, tactical genius, and raw anger that pulls the story behind him by sheer force of will. Taniel is almost hesitant to be put on the page, the words feeling tight and withdrawn as the characters that surround his own story arc drown him in a sea of mystery or intensity. Characters such as a chef who claims he’s a god, a mercenary mage with a near-suicidal grudge, and a bodyguard who never sleeps flesh out the cast, adding doses of comic relief and unbridled violence to the mix.
A talent for pacing and a light hand with exposition
All in all, it creates a sense of complexity regardless of the fact that the story is easy to follow, making the world seem more fleshed out than it actually is. This is a credit to McClellan’s writing, as it shows he can use inference to keep the prose from being bogged down in endless exposition—something many debuting (and even experienced) epic fantasy authors do. When one is crafting a whole new world, one has to either spell everything out or rely on history and literary tropes to fill in the gaps. This is, in my opinion, why medieval epic fantasy is so popular. One need only mention lords and kings to let the reader imagine the feudal system as the historical backdrop, or mention elves to conjure up pointy ears, snooty arrogance, and fae beauty. By shifting forward from that familiar point, McClellan risked either the world feeling hollow and poorly constructed or the reader being burdened with exposition dump after exposition dump. Thankfully, the exposition is kept to a manageable level, never taking up more space than the pacing would allow.
The magic of Promise of Blood is, in many ways, an extension of the old guard making way (involuntarily) for the new. There are three primary classifications within the magic system: Knacked, Marked, and Privileged. Knacked are single-powered individuals with varying abilities. Marked are the titular powder mages who, in a Sandersonian turn of fate, consume gunpowder to give them magical abilities. And Privileged are the aforementioned old guard, powerful sorcerers who can conjure fire and terrify by reputation alone but are seemingly stuck in the age of when they were king of the hill. Being capable of blowing a building apart with magic is all well and good, but when someone floats a bullet right through your head from a mile or more away or sticks you in your bed, all the power in the world is just so much ash in the wind.
Why should you read this book?
The story blends political fantasy, military fantasy, epic fantasy, and even fledgling Industrial Era urban fantasy into a focused narrative with well-written characters and an interesting slant on common fantasy tropes. McClellan’s debut points him out as an author to be watched, especially with The Crimson Campaign releasing February 18th, 2014.