The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is the first in the Vampire Assassin Trilogy, set in an alternate history Venice circa 1407. Since the city ruler, Duke Marco IV, is a simpleton and figurehead, the Duke’s Uncle, Prince Alonzo, rules in his stead. Alonzo’s ambitions, in turn, are tempered by the schemes of the Duke’s widowed mother, Duchess Alexa. The book opens as the Duke’s young cousin, Lady Giulietta, runs away from home, trying to escape an arranged marriage to the elderly King Janus of Cyprus. Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, retrieves Giulietta and saves her from the werewolves roaming the night.
Before she is wed, however, Giulietta vanishes again. This time, retrieving Giulietta proves difficult; the only fruitful find proves to be a boy chained and bound to a ship. This boy, Tycho, possesses superhuman strength and speed, feeds on blood, and reviles the sunlight. Atilo immediately recruits Tycho as an assassin-in-training who will aid in the search for the missing girl.
The cover for The Fallen Blade is beautiful but somewhat misleading. Tycho looks clean and well-dressed. He stands tall, resembling the love child of Edward Cullen and the Vampire Lestat, redone in 1407 Venice style. But The Fallen Blade is gritty, dirty, and coarse. Not even the noblewomen in this book are so pristine as to escape the visceral reaction of soiling their underpants when the situation calls for it. Think Underworld’s vampire-werewolf rivalry meets The Tudors’ political intrigue—then toss in all the dirt and grime from The Road and Children of Men.
Revitalizing the vampire genre
Just as Batman Begins revitalized the Batman franchise, Grimwood revitalizes the vampire genre with The Fallen Blade. As Tycho adjusts to the year 1407, he realizes that his last memory is from one century earlier. Because he may very well be history’s first vampire, he has no idea what he is, nor how he became that way. He has help developing his assassin skills, but he has no mentor to decipher his vampiric abilities. While it may be obvious to the reader what Tycho is, the lack of vampiric precedence in this world makes us question some of our preconceived notions about vampires and sets the stage for fresh parameters to be further defined by the next two books. Since the werewolves are not examined in detail this time around, I also hope that the next two books will reveal the inner workings of the Wolf Brothers, who in this book are led by the German Prince Leopold.
The only minor complaint I have with The Fallen Blade is that while stylishly written, the prose can sometimes be downright dense, leading me to reread passages where I’ve lost track of the speaker, the setting, or both.
Why should you read this book?
Grimwood is a wizard who brings this world alive. Not only will you walk through 1407 Venice, you’ll smell the urine on the streets, taste the salt water in the air, rock along with the boats, and roam across the rooftops. That all this is done while an intriguing fantasy storyline unfolds is nothing less than impressive.
Benni received a review copy of this book courtesy of Orbit.