‘The Age of Kings is dead… And I have killed it.’
So I admit that I was wary when picking up Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood. I generally prefer my fantasy feudal with royalty, swords and plenty of sorcerous magic with little to no technology, let alone guns. As a flintlock fantasy I thought I would bore easily over the gun warfare and magic that is directly linked to said guns and gunpowder; however this series is now one huge exception. Simply, I loved it.
We follow several different characters in the aftermath of a military coup that brought down Adro’s monarchy and noble families. As the country teeters on war with neighbouring Kez, civil war and shocking betrayals threaten to ruin well laid plans. We begin just after the coup has successfully stormed the king’s palace and the pace never drops. Following different characters per chapter means that not only do we get a wider view of the world, we also get to follow multiple plot lines. This keeps the story engaging and fast paced. Although I occasionally felt an initial sadness when a chapter ended and the character changed but once I remembered where this character was left I found myself absorbed, eager to discover what happened next. It wasn’t wholly unpredictable but there were plenty of different intrigues that kept me guessing all the way through and meant that by the end I was sat on the edge of my bed desperately turning the pages hoping my favourite characters made it through.
This brings me nicely to the characters. It’s rare to get such well rounded characters that it felt unique to get them here. We not only understand their motives, histories and personalities, we also get their hobbies – Taniel for example, is an excellent shot and can hold himself well in close quarter fighting but we also see how he enjoys sketching. This aspect of him isn’t just dropped in, we see it again and again as he wants to sketch people he has just met. These little things add up throughout the novel and create really well developed, interesting characters that spring from the page. There is a great cast here from the traditional villainous miscreants (yes, plural, not just one big bad wolf) to flawed ‘good guys’ who are all pretty much floating in moral grey areas – again, quite true to life. I will admit though that I have a soft spot for Taniel Two-Shot… all the heart eyes.
Anyway, ahem, where was I? Ah yes, world building and magic.
The world-building and magic systems are also excellent. I was a little confused at first about the different types of ‘magician’ (for want of a better word) but I appreciated there not being a long drawn out information dump at the beginning. There are three (known) levels of magic: Privileged, who can work sorceries by touching the Else with rune covered gloves; Marked – the powder mages who can use gunpowder to enhance their senses, ignite it at will and manipulate bullets to go further, round corners and hit precise targets; and finally, the Knacked, who tend to have one very good skill, eg not needing to sleep – ever, knowing if someone is lying, the ability to pick all locks etc.. the dynamics between these magic wielders are complex and hostile. The interactions, beliefs and behaviours between these orders compares and contrasts nicely with the friction explored in the back drop of the military and council’s attempts to destroy the country’s class systems and unionise industry workers. I feel like there is still lots more to learn though, especially when it comes to neighbouring countries and the gods…