Promise of Blood (Powder Mage #1)

Hold up now, we got ourselves a good one.

Promise of Blood is probably the most straight-up entertaining sff book I’ve read in the past few months. It’s the first novel of author Brian McClellan, and while there are some minor issues, especially in the start of the book, it’s remarkably polished for a first book. It’s also a reasonably fresh take on the genre, a straight-up fantasy world that is in the throes of an old fashioned industrial revolution, complete with guns and steam engines.

The practice of reflecting on books continues to lead me to a conclusion that appears increasingly inexorable: characters matter. Perhaps more than anything else. Take away the characters and a fantasy novel, no matter how innovative or epic, becomes little more than a D&D rulebook. Promise of Blood’s characters are fleshed out with a panache that I’ve seen lacking in more experienced authors, and yet not in such a drawn-out fashion as to be ponderous. And these characters act in believable ways, with internal logics that enable them to act within the confines of their knowledge in a way that inspires confidence in their intelligence. Friendship is a prominent theme in character interactions – almost every POV character has a sidekick, or sparring partner, with whom they develop bonds of comradeship. That provides an added layer of depth to the character interactions in the book and provides for some entertaining banter.

Promise of Blood is also impressive because it tells the tale from a relatively unconventional perspective – that of someone in power: Field Marshal Tamas, leader of the bloody coup that ousts an incompetent king in the beginning of the novel. Tamas is a tough, often brutal man, a leader with no qualms about killing his opponents and those who pose him problems – but he has remarkable depth. He has vulnerabilities, uncertainties and weaknesses, friends and loved ones who aid and hinder him. He is not an infallible black box or brooding enigma, in the way many such characters are portrayed.

Promise of Blood is the first in a trilogy, in which the nation of Adro, newly absent its king, must fend off enemies and survive. This takes place within a broader thematic backdrop of progress against tradition, which is supported by the distinctive magic system. There are the titular powder mages of the industrializing Adro, who derive their powers from gunpowder, symbolizing progress – innovation in the use and study of sorcery, as it were, against the cabals of Privileged sorcerers of their enemies, who stand for the old ways and use more conventional magics. There is little love lost between the two strains, but the world of magic is wider than just those two. In devising the powder mages, McClellan has devised an intriguing magic system with compelling internal logic, but with a wide scope for further elaboration in future books.

Despite the general bloodiness, the book leaves some room for humor. There are some genuinely amusing vignettes that have an aura of absurd humor about them. The mysterious chef Mihali is one such fount, as are the wry observations of Tamas’ bodyguard Olem. Unmitigated grimdark gets tiring, guys.

There are some minor issues with excessive world-building exposition in the beginning and a somewhat rushed ending, but all in all, highly recommended for fans of fantasy.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 voodoo dolls

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