Promise of Blood - Brian  McClellan In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of Promise of Blood from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. So, here's the bare truth of it: I think I only got about a chapter and a half in before I felt the need to go out and buy a copy of my very own. From the intro alone, I just knew I had to own this book and add it to my personal fantasy library, and even now that I'm done, I do not regret that decision one bit! While it is true that the novel is not without its flaws, it is nonetheless an amazingly solid debut. Mark my words, I have a feeling that Brian McClellan is going to be a new author to watch.

About the book:

You have to understand, I love stories that begin by thrusting you into the thick of things, which was why I was completely smitten with Promise of Blood right from the start. The book is aptly named, because it begins with blood, and lots of it. The kingdom of Adro has been badly run for years, and the king has decided to settle its debts by practically selling his people's freedom to the neighboring nation of Kez. Furious with the decision, Field Marshal Tamas leads a coup to take the throne, rounding up the king and all the influential nobles of the land for the guillotine. The mass executions that follow last for days.

But no revolution happens without serious repercussions. During his takeover, Tamas also wipes out the king's entire royal cabal of Privileged, a group of sorcerers who are loyal to the monarchy. They are also bitter rivals of the Marked, also known as the powder mages, the order to which Tamas himself belongs. To a one, the words on the dying lips of every Privileged was the same: "You can't break Kresmir's Promise." Invoking Kresimir, the name of the one god of the Nine Nations, is an ill omen perhaps, but it could mean something more. Though not a superstitious or overly religious man, Tamas nonetheless hires the services of retired police inspector Adamat to investigate these mysterious last words.

His troubles do not end here. An assassination attempt not long after the coup makes Tamas realize that one of his co-conspirators has betrayed him. Furthermore, relations with King Ipille of Kez are still shaky. Tamas' estranged son Taniel, also a powerful powder mage in his own right, is disturbed when he discovers Ipille's army at their door, preparing for war. The question is, is the Kez simply taking advantage of the political turmoil in Adro to invade? Or is this a sign of something bigger, more sinister, and much, much worse?

My thoughts:

As you can see, Promise of Blood encompasses an epic scope of events, including war, politics, and religion amongst other things. It is a complex, well-constructed and thought-out world, with every aspect of life considered, which really helped to immerse me into the story. The setting is reminiscent of late 18th-century France, thanks to the image of the uniform on the cover as well as the book's theme of revolution and the symbol of the guillotine. The industrial age is in full swing, with talk of steam-powered printing presses (when they're not exploding for our hapless characters) and other technologies associated with the era. This setting and its ambiance alone sets the book apart for me, makes it special and something else.

At the same time, I felt really comfortable reading this. There are a lot of original ideas in the book, but also a familiarity to them that made me feel right at home. In a way, it was like reading an amalgamation of some of my favorite epic fantasies: a magic system that's as creative as anything by Brandon Sanderson, backstabbing and political scheming that reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire, and a complex religion with a pantheon of gods that bring to mind Jacqueline Carey and her Kushiel books. All of these can potentially be built upon and filled out a little more, of course, which I'm sure will occur throughout the course of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I'm also intrigued and quite happy with what's been established for now.

The magic system could definitely do with a little more praise from me, though. Here, Sanderson's influence is really apparent, which is not surprising given how Brian McClellan is a former student of his. The world of Promise of Blood is home to many types of magic users, not the least are the Marked, powder mages who ingest or snort black powder into their system to reach a state called "powder trance", giving them greater strength, sharper senses, and enabling them to do things like ignite nearby sources of powder or guide bullets to their targets. Then there are the Privileged, who are more your traditional type of mages, manipulating the elements to hurl fireballs and create shields, etc. Then there are the Knacked, who are only in possession of a single "talent", but are able to do that one thing really, REALLY well.

Characters who are Marked, Privileged, and Knacked alike are central to the book's story, since so often their abilities are the main driving force. I find that powder mage sorcery is explained pretty well, but wish there were more details provided for the other classes of magic users too. What's up with those white gloves with the red and gold runes the Privileged wear, for example, and why exactly do they have to wear them in order to do magic? Knacked magic is also somewhat unclear, as despite their having only one talent, what I read makes it seem like anything might be possible with them.

I feel a similar way about the character development. Some, like Tamas, are written really well. He's a completely fleshed-out and multilayered person, at various times making it difficult for me to make up my mind about him. Some of his decisions, like the coup, are motivated by his well-intentioned desires to do right by the Adran people, but I also have to question how much of him is driven by raw emotion and pure hatred for the Kez, especially at the beginning. In the aftermath of all the executions, I admit I did wonder for a brief moment if the author is setting Tamas up to become a misguided villain. Getting to know his character was one helluva ride.

However, my favorite character had to be Adamat. His role in the book provided a bit of mystery to the story, and I always looked forward to returning to his sections. I thought his character and others were given varying degrees of attention when it comes to development, though. I felt more connected to many of them towards the beginning of the novel, only to find myself questioning more and more their perspectives as I progressed. For example, one blackmailed character went on with his work seemingly clearheaded enough, even when presented with the severed finger of his son, while I imagine a family man like him would probably be freaking out like any parent, or at least be feeling a bit more distracted.

Also, the female presence in this book could have been more efficiently presented. A story not having enough of a female perspective isn't actually something I mind, quite honestly not something that would normally occur to me at all, and I probably wouldn't even have noticed here if not for Nila, the royalist laundress who gets caught up in the consequences of the coup. Nila's character is introduced early on in the beginning, but her sections come up sporadically, and once she disappeared for so long that it took me a while to remember who she was. I'm hoping I'll get to see more of her in the second book. Same goes for other female characters like Vlora and Ko-poel, both of whom I found very interesting but underutilized and deserving of more focus.

I want to point that out that none of these weaker points were major enough to take away from my overall enjoyment, though. As with a lot of debut novels, there's a certain raw quality to the writing and storytelling, which becomes slightly more noticeable in the later stages of the book, but it didn't really bother me at all -- mainly because I was so enraptured by the magic and the plot. A lot of great fantasy books have been written over the years, and despite being new on the scene, Brian McClellan has definitely written a novel that can stand on the shelf next to any of them.