Thursday 24 March 2011

Book Review | The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

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Venice, 1407.

The city is at the height of its powers. In theory, Duke Marco commands, but Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. They seem all powerful, yet live in fear of assassins better than their own.

On the night their world changes, Marco's young cousin prays in the family chapel for deliverance from a forced marriage. It is her misfortune to be alone when Mamluk pirates break in to abduct her - an act that will ultimately trigger war.

Elsewhere Atilo, the Duke's chief assassin, cuts a man's throat. Hearing a noise, he turns back to find a boy drinking from the victim's wound. The speed with which the angel-faced boy dodges his dagger and scales a wall stuns Atilo. He knows then he must hunt him. Not to kill him, but because he's finally found what he thought was impossible - someone fit to be his apprentice.

There's enough going on in the first hundred pages of The Fallen Blade that I honestly had trouble keeping track; enough character, atmosphere and narrative in that short space to fit out a swathe of less ambitious fantasy sagas from top to tail. Overwhelming is what it is, initially, and for its density - for its complete and utter abundance from the word "go" - The Fallen Blade will very likely haemorrhage readers of a certain type. For myself, only rarely will I think to put a book down without sticking with it till the bitter end... and I nearly did this. Nearly... but not quite.

Imagine my astonishment, then, that having resolved to give Jon Courtenay Grimwood's dark fantasy debut a little longer to find its feet, and taken the opportunity to realign a few of my own key expectations, I found in The Fallen Blade the first act of a trilogy with such tremendous promise that at this point, its difficult beginning be damned, I wouldn't hesitate to proclaim it the finest new series of the year to date.

Perhaps the problem I found myself facing, starting in on book one of The Assassini, was a lack of familiarity with the author: an award-winner, at that. And here I hadn't read End of the World Blues, or The Arabesk Trilogy -- more fool me, from where I stand now.

But I don't think that was it.

I think the trouble was, I came to The Fallen Blade expecting a certain standard of fantasy -- which is to say, politely put, standard fantasy. We all know the like, no doubt. And what with the uninspiring blurb and cover art adorning Orbit's edition of The Fallen Bladeit's surely fair to say I had my reasons. Namely a city teetering on the brink of collapse, with a war in the offing, a history of horrors and a proliferation of political strife. Want to bet a pretty boy with incredible supernatural powers will somehow save the day?

Well, not so much.

Tycho - he of the aforementioned angel face (p.43) - is assuredly our protagonist for the macabre entertainments to come throughout the remainder of this stunning introduction to the world of The Assassini, but let's be clear here: he's no sweet cheeks, despite sharing a name (somewhat distractingly) with one half of renowned internet funmongers Penny Arcade. Either a fallen angel or a risen devil, Tycho is at the outset of The Fallen Blade as new to the filthy 15th century Venice of Grimwood's trilogy as you and I; and as new to himself, too, for he's an amnesiac when we meet, only lately freed from a voyage to the city spent in cruel and unusual captivity. Or so one gathers.

You might think his gradual awakening, both to who he is and to the festering wonders of the world around him, would work as an ideal means of introducing the reader to this "city of gilt, glass and assassinations," (p.28) and so it serves to... eventually. But in the early going this is assuredly not that sort of novel. Much in the mode of the hard SF this author cut his teeth on, Grimwood courageously refuses to pander; his priorities at the outset of The Assassini are of a grander order than the offering up of accessible worldbuilding and an array of relatable characters. Inevitably, readers used to the baby's-first-fantasy chaperoning of so many genre novels will find themselves floundering for a foothold through the first act of The Fallen Blade. For me, my own frustrations are evidence enough of that disheartening fact.

But I wouldn't change it if I could. Grimwood might make you work for it - for an understanding of this murderous, Machiavellian society wherein "the briefest glimpse of lovers, seen through the window of a candlelit room overlooking the Grand Canal, carried more interest than prices murdered on Venetian orders miles away," (p.145) check your undivided attention in at the entrance - but the end result of all your effort is a red-wine rich and resplendent sight; a measured assault on the senses which only a precious few fantasists are capable of accomplishing in fiction.

The Fallen Blade is many things, and if there's any justice in the publishing industry - and I dearly hope there is - it will be many things to many people. At first, it's hard work; I make no bones about that. Having come to fantasy only after sharpening his storytelling skills as a science fiction author, working in a field esteemed for its intelligence and density, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's prose in The Fallen Blade is so finely honed as to seem a point... a point which some readers will struggle to see past. But at the last, The Fallen Blade is a darkly remarkable first fantasy, featuring goodly amounts of sex, death and other assorted grimnesses, set in a squalorous city the equal of Styria - from fellow filth slash fine art purveyor Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold - and starring in Tycho a character handily up to the task of carrying a thickly political narrative with such boundless ambition as to recall no-one more than George R. R. Martin.

It really is quite good, shall we say.


The Fallen Blade
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

UK Publication: February 2011, Orbit
US Publication: January 2011, Orbit

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