Promise of Blood (book one of the Powder Mage trilogy) is fantasy, but not standard fantasy – not fantasy of the expected pattern. It’s flintlock fantasy, so the technology is different, but that’s only part of it. Brian McClellan’s book is a book in which a typical fantasy world is updating, progressing.
The book is set in a society in flux – it was once exactly what you’d expect from the genre, with wizards and magical cities and monsters in the high passes, but all of that is changing. The common people are organising into trade unions, magic mixes with musket fire on battlefields, and a new rival to the power of the mages is rising. Field Marshal Tamas has killed the king, deposed the aristocracy, and defied the gods. There is blood splashed across the cobblestones, open warfare in the streets, and a foreign army approaching. Tamas has to hold the country together in the chaos, while his son hunts for the remaining threats from the old regime, and a retired detective searches for traitors to the new one.
It’s a setting and a situation that is heavily influenced by the French revolution. Flintlock fantasy sets it to around that era anyway, but the plotting, double crossing and violence are the Terror all over again. Yet that flavour isn’t the only one – there are also significant sections that are epic fantasy, questing out across unwelcoming lands. Some sections seem influenced by Poirot more than anyone else. Promise of Blood is not a book focused on just one era, just one idea, but rather a book that’s focused on progression from one to the next.
What I find most interesting about this book is the sense of progress. McClellan sets up a situation and then looks at how it would evolve, how fantasy stock characters and organisations would react to the inevitable march of progress. Fantasy has to yield a lot of the time, but not always – one of the central conflicts is between old and new. Throughout the book, the two sides are constantly warring for supremacy.
That’s shown most clearly in the magic system, which was another thing I approved of. The book contains traditional mages, able to perform incredible feats of magic, throw fire, and master the elements. For centuries, they’ve served the king and been essentially untouchable; wizards can demolish buildings and destroy regiments without that much effort.
However, as gunpowder becomes more common, another kind of magic user has appeared. Powder mages are much less powerful than the traditional mages (called the ‘Privileged’), but they are a significant threat to them. The powder mages magic is focused on gunpowder – they can snort it to become stronger, they can detonate it at will, they can float bullets round corners or over incredible distances. A Privileged can call down lightning from the skies, but a powder mage can put a bullet through the Privileged’s brain.
The book is at its strongest when dealing with characters upclose, focusing on the detectives worry for his family, or Tamas’ struggle to balance his personal wishes with his public responsibilities. No one fits very clearly into a single archetype, or has a single, easy driving motivator. The glimpses given of normal life in the city are particularly well done – there’s a definite sense that it is a living and breathing place, not just a backdrop to the main characters.
The viewpoint characters are complex, conflicted and multi-faceted – none of them are particularly happy, and each one gives a slightly different perspective on all of the changes, showing the reactions of people at every level of society. Multiple viewpoints is the norm nowadays, but usually there is at least one character who is boring and a slog to get through – that isn’t the case here. I had my preferences, but there weren’t any sections that dragged.
It is a long book, and its a book that occasionally loses focus a little. As above, the writing is best when highly focused on a single character, a single building. As the story expands, some of that focus is lost – people leave the city, and high fantasy elements start to appear.
The high fantasy elements were always there before, of course – magical ability is common, to varying degrees, and frequently displayed. But at the start of the book, those elements are still personal and immediate: one character is a powerful mage, but that’s not their full identity, or even the most important aspect.
By the end though, power levels have increased. It’s no longer personal rivalries between people who happen to be magical, but volcano cities and armies of horrifying beasts. With such events, it’s hard to keep up the same focus, and it goes into long stretches that are just standard fantasy, without the depth or the exploration of an interesting world. That’s not a bad thing in itself – I’ll happily read epic fantasy. However, these stretches are obviously going to be compared with the quality and depth of the rest of the book, and they suffer somewhat from that.
The other slight issue I have with the increase in power and spectacle is more speculative than anything else. Promise of Blood stats with the overthrow of a king, and ends with even more portentous events. Given that each book of a series has to keep up the excitement, and this normally leads to increasing stakes in each book, I’m unsure how the Powder Mage trilogy is going to deal with the escalation. It’s difficult to think of new events that are more important and influential.
But that’s not a huge concern – even if the stakes don’t rise at all, I’m interested in the Powder Mage books for the characters, for the detail in the setting more than I am for the earth-shattering power and questing. Promise of Blood is interesting, and original, and I’d recommend it.