Review of Promise of Blood
Field Marshal Tamas has just completed a quick and fierce revolution against his king in Adro. Convinced he and his countrymen were going to be made slaves to the neighbor nation of Kez, Tamas instead rebels, toppling the governmental structure of feudal nobility to create a government that will be responsible to the people. He also purges the king’s loyal cabal of Privileged mages. In doing so, Tamas discovers the mages were keeping an ancient secret he cannot unravel, but he knows he must if his new government is to endure the early turbulence of social unrest, wealth disparity, and opportunistic enemy nations.
Adamat, a private investigator, is contacted by Tamas to uncover this secret of the Privileged cabal. In his inquiries, he discovers powerful wizards working behind the scenes internationally with their own agenda. He also finds there is a traitor is the new council Tamas is setting up to transition the nation to a republic. Even as Adamat begins his search to root out the traitor, he learns the hard way that his personal life is targeted by dangerous and influential people who want the revolution, and by proxy Adamat’s investigation, to fail.
Taniel is an accomplished powder mage, someone who can use magic to manipulate the properties of gunpowder and firearms, something that Privileged mages cannot do. He’s returning to Adro after having worked clandestinely to fight the Kez in the frontier, and he brought back Ka-poel, a mute young woman who practices an unknown type of magic. He’s tasked with tracking down the few Privileged cabal wizards who escaped the purge. Reluctantly, he accepts because he still wants the approval of Tamas, his father, and he’s distracting himself from how his life is collapsing around him: his fiancé cheated on him, his country is changing in ways that make it unrecognizable to him, and he becoming addicted to using gunpowder to balance his emotions.
Nila is a laundress to an aristocratic family who finds herself looking after child. Caught in the revolution, she comes to realize the child stands in line to inherit the throne, which puts a target on the young man and herself. She learns she must consider deception and violence as a means to save her young charge and herself from the revolutionary fervor.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is the setting. It carries a flavor of Europe in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century where rapid technological and industrial progress led to massive population shifts, social destabilization, and political revolution. It’s a far cry from the standard semi-Medieval fantasy setting reflected in the politics and prevalence of firearms. Similarly, the author has done a smart job of showing how both magic and technology work together in the setting and the ways the interplay between the has influence all aspects of life. Just as technology is relatively widespread, so is magic in that many people have Knacks—being born with a powerful magical gift such as having a perfect memory or minor psychokinesis. It makes the setting feel lived-in and provides a sense of verisimilitude. Readers also learn some of the rules governing Privileged magic and Powder mages and the like. There’s no prolonged discourse concerning it, so it isn’t like Mistborn where readers come to learn all the rules. There is, however, enough related through the story where the audience can trust that there is a body of knowledge concerning supernatural powers that other characters understand and can explain when the novel requires them to do so.
Going Powder Blind
Not all elements of the story cohere as well as they should. As a minor issue, there is some question about how long it takes characters to get from one place to another. The maps presented don't exactly help either. Sometimes where reading, it seems like either too much or too little happens in a particular span of time, especially when some aspects of the story, Adamat’s investigator or Taniel’s trailing his quarry, have deadlines that are important until sometimes they are not.
The contrasting styles are not bad in themselves, but sometimes create a dissonance in tone. Adamat’s investigations are sometimes rough, gritty, and dangerous, which doesn’t always mix well with the political posturing and intrigue of the revolution Tamas is leading, which doesn’t always mix with the fantasy adventure of Taniel tracking down and killing wizards. All of these stories also fall under a larger umbrella of the alleged return of the deity Kresimir who founded the nine kingdoms and taught people magic a thousand years ago. The presence of gods and wizards who are centuries old is a bit hard to take seriously, especially since other characters don’t believe it either. As the novel progresses, however, many of the trajectories of the characters are pulled into the orbit of this story about returning gods.
There are also a lot of characters who are presented in a way and talked about as though they are important, but nothing ever comes of this. Bo, Vlora, Ka-poel, Julene, and even Nila are sidelined for long stretches of the book. Maybe this is hinting at or setting up their arcs for the rest of the series, but in this novel, it comes across either as a distraction or a missed opportunity. Olem, the bodyguard of Tamas, isn’t a main character, but even he gets more time on page than some of the aforementioned characters who are supposed to be playing major roles in the lives of other characters and events within the story.
Viva la Révolution!
Despite these minor errors, Promise of Blood is certainly worth picking up. The prose is generally clear and workman-like. It won’t astound anyone with its beauty, but it does present the setting and characters in a way that the audience can quickly understand what is happening. The unique and compelling world of the novel is attractive to both traditional fantasy readers who like magic and high adventure and fantasy readers who are looking for something outside many of the standard tropes of the genre. It has some similarities to the setting and tone of the videogame Greedfall, but without the sense of exploration and colonization in that game. Instead it has political conspiracy, betrayal, investigation, and various styles of arcane combat, all of which bring the reader into the world of Powder Mages.
McClellan, Brian. Promise of Blood. Orbit, 2013.
© 2020 Seth Tomko