Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

January 21, 2014 Reviews 5 ★★★½

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellanPromise of Blood (The Powder Mage #1) by Brian McClellan
Published: April 16th 2013 by Little Brown Books
Format: Hardcover, 545 pages
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
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3.5 Stars

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

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 ...

An impressive tale exploring the consequences of a revolution against a monarchy, Promise of Blood begins the story of the man who overthrows his King and is left to with a kingdom on the brink of war. I think it’s an admirable début, set in an impeccably created world and sporting great characters, but there’s also a lot of room for improvement.

My favourite aspect of the book is the magic system, not surprising considering McClellan was a student of Brandon Sanderson. There are three classes of magic users in the world: those who possess a Knack; the Privileged; and the Marked. The knacked are generally the least powerful of the three, with each person possessing something unique: ranging from the ability to function without sleep or truth-saying, to being able to cook amazing meals. The Privileged are like traditional sorcerers, drawing their power from the Else. They form the magical elite who guard the King. Finally, there are the Marked, also called Powder Mages. Their abilities stem from gunpowder, which they can ignite at will, or ingest to gain physical enhancements. Powder Mages run the risk of becoming addicted to the heightened state that the powder gives them. I love the system, it’s well thought-out and intricate, without becoming too cumbersome to follow. However, I would have liked more explanation of how it all works, especially since the Marked haven’t always been around, and gun-powder harms the Privileged.

With this world as a backdrop, Promise of Blood needs equally amazing characters to populate it. Powder Mage Field Marshal Tamas has overthrown the corrupt monarchy of Adro and wants to replace it with a representative council, but restoring order is taking longer than expected because the neighbouring nation of Kez is preparing an invasion. Tamas’ son Taniel, also Marked, is called home from faraway battles to hunt down the last remaining Privileged sorceress of the King’s royal cabal, who seems to have more power than any other Privileged in history. Joining them is Adamat, a retired police investigator whose Knack is a perfect memory, tasked by Tamas with finding out why every member of the royal cabal warned against “breaking Kresimir’s promise” before dying, and Nila, a laundress who rescues a duke’s young son, the last remaining heir to the throne.

The characters play off well against one another: they are all well written, admirable, brave in their own ways, and plagued with fear and doubt like everyone else. Tamas’ tough and cold exterior is tempered by his worry about his son and his concerns of a traitor in his innermost circles, Taniel wants to gain the respect and admiration of his father, and is forced to work with his ex-fiancée who cheated on him, and Adamat is concerned about his family’s safety in the inevitable riots, and worries that his new job makes him a target.

Although I enjoyed reading a story told by these characters, Promise of Blood is primarily a book about men doing things – there are very few women in the cast and they are often shown in a poor light. Rozalia and Juden are both deemed ‘evil’, Vlora is woefully overlooked and only pulled into the picture when either Tamas or Taniel want to reflect her betrayal, and Ko-Poel, although mysterious and powerful, is mute. The female character I had the most trouble with is Nila, who is courageous and brilliant, but because her part in the story opposes Tamas’ goals, readers are expected to dislike or pity her rather than cheer her bravery. Many of the characters have dead wives, or wives who are absent throughout the book, and the only female member of Tamas’ council sleeps with a traitor. Where are the amazing, strong, capable women? While the male characters undoubtably have flaws, they weren’t as dangerous or fatalistic as those given to the females, and the imbalance is incredibly disappointing.

Promise of Blood is also let down by its execution – although it is a remarkably polished début, I feel that the author let the multiple points-of-view slip in the latter half of the book. I was never with a character long enough to become invested in their plight, and simultaneously spent too long with certain characters when nothing was happening. It didn’t help the novel that there are sometimes jumps in time when the points of view change – especially one where apparently several weeks went by and Tamas did nothing to help his son out with a siege. The second half of the novel feels disjointed and lacks the impetus of the first half.

Overall, Promise of Blood is a great début and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Although the world-building is great and the main characters interesting, I feel its execution and treatment of female characters could be improved upon. The novel is exciting and entertaining, and it’s going to be interesting to see McClellan come into his own – he’ll be doing great things in the future. I think there’s many awesome things planned for us, and can’t wait to read The Crimson Campaign.

5 Responses to “Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan”

  1. Dee

    I was so similarly perplexed by the gender imbalance in this book that I actually sent Mr McClellan an email about it. Vlora has SO much potential, and yet no use whatsoever is made of her! She doesn’t even speak up to defend herself against all the betrayal-manpain. And it particularly perplexes me given the novellas in the universe, with their strong female leads (one of them Vlora, I understand). I’m forced to conclude that he just didn’t think about how the choices he made about the novel content stacked up, gender-wise.

    But otherwise, SUCH a good book, and so looking forward to more.

    • Shaheen

      I’ve bought the novellas but have been very bad and not read them yet. I think your comment gives me just the spur I need – I’d love to see him write amazing female characters.

      I’m intrigued that you emailed McClellan, did he reply?

      • Dee

        Definitely curious to hear your thoughts on the novellas, when they bubble to the top of the reading pile!

        No reply from McClellan, but I didn’t really expect one. I’m sure he’s ridiculously busy! Mostly I guess I just wanted to prompt thought next time, because I really don’t believe the gender imbalance was intentional on his part.

        • Brian

          Hey Dee, sorry I never got back to you! It was quite unintentional–something that didn’t even occur to me until the book came out. The short fiction has been a bit of an answer to that, and I really tried to fix it in The Autumn Republic. Hope you enjoy the future books!

          • Dee

            Oh, wow, thanks for the reply, Brian! Looking forward to the later books even more now (which means my anticipation can probably be seen from space…)

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