Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Fallen Blade

Not to be confused with Broken Blade, the first thing I reviewed. By the legitimate chance of me picking books that look interesting, that we've hit parallel titles within six weeks. I'll make running note of this sort of thing to illustrate that I'm really not kidding on the plotting page; it's hard to keep track of the names of things in this genre.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Running up to a tome (464 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: January 27, 2011 from Orbit Books
Premise: Venice in the early 1400s seethes with intrigue, centered on two powerful people vying for control of the city, and is threatened by a magical war in the shadows. The novel opens with Giulietta, a young Millioni princess being forced into marriage, running away and being rescued by the great cost to the Assassani he has spent so long training. Those assassins kept Venice safe, and with them dead, Atilo must search for replacements. He finds a potential but dangerous one in Tycho, a young man who moves faster than anyone alive but fears the sunlight. Venice's enemies are circling, ready to attack at the first sign of weakness, but their plots cannot match the ambition of those in the city itself.
Warnings: one scene of forced artificial impregnation, many threats of rape, gore, murder of children
Recommendation: If you have the same soft spot for books set in Venice that I do, or want to read a vampire novel that's very different from most (and never uses the word "vampire"), check this one out. Mass market prices would make me recommend it a bit more enthusiastically, but so far it's only out in trade paperback. 

What makes this one intriguing: 

The Fallen Blade shines darkly in the way it depicts death, ruthlessness, and the casual brutality that dominate this version of Venice. A lot of books shy away from killing off or seriously hurting likeable characters, but Grimwood goes to great lengths to establish that both decent people and bad people do awful things when they think it's necessary. We see people casually murdered at the drop of a hat, children used as bait and butchered, people scarred or beaten for saying the wrong thing....all in all, it's honestly a fair depiction of a world without modern constraints on violence. That means that not every scene is comfortable to read, but it's great to see a book not pull any punches: there are no happy endings, only a struggle that seems to get worse as it continues.

Grimwood excels at foreshadowing, giving enough hints and half-shown bits of intrigue to provide material for several more books. Alexa is unquestionably the best manipulator in the game. As the widow of the previous duke and mother of the insane Marco IV, the current ruler, she wields power in competition with Alonzo, the previous duke's brother. Alonzo is interesting mainly for his history of military strategic skill, but Alexa has a far more shadowed nature. She looks decades younger than she is, always wears a veil, and has the ability to use the body of a bat to spy on events; we never see explanations for why any of this is true, but we're shown enough to learn that she has layers of tricks and plans that go far beyond just beating out Alonzo's political vision of himself in charge and her son dead.

Marco IV himself makes a fascinating figure at the heart of the intrigue. His mind isn't all there, so he's normally babbling or humming, completely oblivious to what's going on....except when he gives a command that completely upsets everyone's plans. In those moments, he's in absolute command of himself and the council room around him, playing political issues with ease and displaying astonishing insight into everyone's motivations. After these fits of lucidity he collapses back into his childlike state. Is he enchanted? Devising an elaborate plot while actually hearing everything? Odds are the answer will come in future books, but in the meantime the shrewd person locked in a childish madman on top of Venice's churning works in a way that not many mad people in fantasy do.

Tycho's magic is clear and vivid, especially when paired with the krieghund (werewolf-esque warriors) transformation. His other world and hints that he may be some variant of a fallen angel set him apart from the normal cape-twirling vampire crowd, and Grimwood does a wonderful job of doling out just enough details to make those powers tantalizing and realistic. He has the normal vampire weaknesses of sunlight, silver, and running water, but the full moon calls him into a slow red world so that he can more with inhuman speed. His "dog teeth" drop when the scent of blood calls to him, but until fairly late in the book his priority is keeping this under control, and he seems to be able to go more than a year without blood if he has to without doing more than slowing down and losing focus.  Tycho begins to realize that after he transforms often and deeply enough, he'll lose the humanity that he values; that issue drives his motivations for the rest of the book. The struggle provides a good counterpoint to his moments of compassion and even love for the small circle of people he wants to save: Desdaio, his master's wife, and Giulietta, a young Millioni princess whose beauty struck him long ago.

It's rare to see female characters in historical fantasy of this sort who have no magic or martial arts training and still manage to be both realistic and strong, but Grimwood gives us two: Desdaio and Giulietta. Desdaio is willing to leave her wealthy family and face social disgrace for love rather than be a pawn for marriage; even when the marriage she was promised doesn't materialize right away, she still tries to learn what's going on and takes the time to unlock Tycho from his prison just to talk about his past because she's curious. Atilo notices that she doesn't think quickly but does think well, and that combined with her compassion in a strained situation makes her uniquely resilient. Giulietta is even more a marriage pawn, but in running away from the one chosen for her, she only finds herself in greater danger. She's threatened, coerced, and kidnapped over and over, but she slowly manages to carve out little slices of dignity and happiness. They don't have power in the same way Alexa does, but they have their own strengths and manage to draw more sympathy than almost anyone else.

The red pen: 

It's hard to care about a major character who doesn't make any sense, and Atilo fills that role lamentably well. He makes a good poster child for Yeats's "the best lack all conviction," which doesn't seem like it would be true early on; he rescues Giulietta and is willing to court Desdaio, who is miles above him socially. After that, unfortunately, he crumples into the old man people accuse him of being. He won't marry Desdaio anytime soon even though he's sleeping with an apprentice in the same house, badly misreads his apprentices more than once despite his much-vaunted perception, and eventually seems to be drifting aimlessly, without anchored loyalties or goals. 
The problem of Atilo's odd engagement to Desdaio is the most nonsensical; he allegedly cares for her, she's living in his home, and he's allied with people who would accept it, so by the time Atilo sets a date for them to actually marry (which still hadn't happened by the end of the book) it's hard to care if he finally lived up to what he should be doing. We didn't see them meet or figure out why they were initially drawn together beyond that Desdaio has nice breasts, so what does the next phase matter? Atilo sleeps around, including with much younger women, but throws fits at the idea of Desdaio looking twice at another man; it fits the culture of the times, but it's also unfair and childish behavior from a man of his age and responsibilities. At some points he seems to love Desdaio, at others he seems to only care if someone else might sleep with her, and by the end of the book I was rooting for him to die just to see what would happen in the power vacuum.

Leopold, Giulietta's rescuer and eventual husband, hits a similar problem. His love for Giulietta is touching, and in theory he should be compelling, but we never get enough background. How did he attain his current diplomatic post in Venice and his supernatural status? How did he come to be interested in Giulietta at all, and what about her has him so distraught at the idea that she might love someone else? He occupies an important role in both Venetian politics and the underworld war, but he's explained so poorly that he ends up getting coded as the insufficiently magical alternate love interest. Grimwood had plenty of room to explore Leopold's relationship with Giulietta and his interactions with Tycho, but every scene that seemed interesting was cut short to leap to the next thing.

Stylistically, this got fairly annoying to read in places. Pairing long sentences with very short ones or with sentence fragments can work exceptionally well: witness the impact of "He plucked, he tasted" of Paradise Lost after so many long sentences. Here, however, the problem is that there are sentence fragments on what feels like every page, and the effect is choppy. An entire piano piece played in staccato sounds monotonously harsh, and a book riddled with sentence fragments starts to sound like a forced attempt to create disjointed thoughts and overemphasize everything. This gets worse because both thoughts and emphatic sentences are conveyed in italics, and at crucial moments it's hard to tell which one is which, and that hampers the flow. Bothersome though they can be, a few exclamation points might be in order to help draw that distinction and create emphasis in a different way.

The pacing is trying to shift among a large cast of characters in order to do full justice to each, but in doing so it makes the characters less interesting, especially since Grimwood is also determined to keep the plot moving at a breakneck speed. Novels with this much intrigue need time to simmer, and this one didn't get it. The early Wheel of Time books do this well, for example, but this has a lot of the skipping-record feel of the later ones in that series; you need time to make the readers emotionally invested in each set, and just hopping to the next dramatic scene doesn't do that. There are several scenes involving everything from attempted assassinations to a character being sold at a slave market, and each one could have been both intriguing and useful for character development if they'd had any buildup. Jumping from one major event to the next feels like a highlights reel, or watching the book on fast-forward, and it would have worked better had it been a hundred or so pages longer to give the characters time to process and react to what's just happened before someone's in mortal peril again. Exciting events don't have any tension without context, without the time to establish why what's happening matters on a level beneath the pragmatic plot concerns.

I'll briefly note that Atilo quotes Shakespeare ("there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in anyone's philosophy") with a definite air of agreeing with the original quote. While I'd normally approve, the problem here is that the book begins in 1407and Shakespeare wasn't born until 1564, more than a century later. Pop culture references are fine and can add flavor, but this one smacks of the author wanting to use the line because it sounds clever even though it doesn't fit the book's "this is real history, simply with more factions and variables" tone.
All in all, The Fallen Blade works really well to build a world full of people who are only occasionally interesting enough to draw sympathy, concern, or even liking. This book could have worked as two books, each with a more relaxed pace, or as one book with some of the less compelling subplots cut out to give the main characters more space to grow. The author does show some promise of flair and interesting ideas, so odds are I'll check out whatever series he chooses to start after this one.

Prospects: The next book (or act) in the Assassani Trilogy, The Outcast Blade, comes out later this month, and I'm honestly on the fence about reading it; the worldbuilding is wonderfully intricate and I really want to see what happens next, but on the other hand....I couldn't really sink my teeth into it. (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Shadow of the Lion, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and David Freer. This one is also set in Venice and hops among several character perspectives, but it has a clearer idea of where it's going. 

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