Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan
I guess the term “Flintlock Fantasy” has a better ring to it than “Magic and Muskets.”
Either way, the name of the subgenre certainly conveys what it’s about. Stories about fantasy characters with guns aren’t anything new (Solomon Kane usually packs a brace of pistols to go with his rapier, after all), but the Flintlock Fantasy subgenre is a bit more specific than that. Where Steampunk is often modeled after the Victorian era (often to its detriment), Flintlock Fantasy more often draws its inspiration from the Napoleonic Era, if not earlier. Or, as I read it described once– Steampunk is what happens after an industrial revolution, where Flintlock Fantasy is the moment right before.
Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy is one of the more popular works of Flintlock Fantasy to come out in recent years, and has kind of served as a codification of the genre. I’d been meaning to check these books out for awhile, so when I stumbled across Promise of Blood, the first of the series, in my library’s e-reader app, I figured I’d give it a go.
Promise of Blood starts with a coup heavily inspired by the French Revolution, down to the barricades and guillotines. (Though technically the barricades would become more prevalent during the July Revolution of 1830– I’ve been listening to the Revolutions Podcast a lot recently). Where a more traditional fantasy novel might center on the last scions of the royal family trying to escape and reclaim their power, McClellan has a different (and I dare say more interesting) story to tell. Field Marshal Tamas, one of the main viewpoint characters, is the officer who’s orchestrated the rebellion in order to overthrow a decadent and incompetent king for the good of the people.
Of course, revolutions are messy things– made even messier when magic is involved. Tamas and his son (another POV character) are powder mages, gifted with the ability to draw magic power from gunpowder. They can burn gunpowder with a thought, make their bullets curve and ricochet around corners, and even snort gunpowder to make themselves stronger and more alert. That last part is … basically magic cocaine, and McClellan treats it as such, complete with nosebleeds and addiction and stuff. Which just goes into the tone of the book– I don’t know if I’d call it outright Grimdark, but it’s a bit heavier than just a swashbuckling adventure.
Powder mages aren’t the only folks who can use magic, either. There are a couple of different styles of magic in the novel, most notably in the old cabal of mages that aren’t too happy about the king getting his head chopped off. McClellan, like a lot of modern fantasy writers, takes a lot of cues from Sanderson in establishing a couple of different interlocking magic systems and how they can be used against each other. Thankfully, there aren’t any charts at the back of the book detailing just who has what powers.
So while the revolutionary setting and the ‘hard’ magic systems are fairly modern, the deeper plot of Promise of Blood is a bit more straightforward and traditional in origin. Basically, it comes down to old gods being summoned, and massive armies going to war and suchlike. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it came off as a bit … higher magic level than I had expected, I guess.
McClellan writes some pretty solid action scenes, and Promise of Blood has a lot of them. This said, I think they could be just a little bit better? As mentioned before, this book is the distillation of the term “Flintlock Fantasy,” which means single-shot weapons. Fair enough. Except that there’s at least one action scene where a character shoots his gun, misses, and then curses ‘cause the bad guy’s running away before he can reload … except he’s carrying multiple weapons. That’s the whole point of having more than one pistol, dude.
Likewise, the magic system is novel– but I found myself kind of overthinking the system. For example, if powder mages can ignite powder with just a thought– why bother with flintlock mechanisms to begin with? Without the need for a finicky device to set off the gunpowder, a powder mage could just weld a couple of metal tubes together and attatch it to a handle in a sort of primitive pepperbox pistol. Which would have the added bonus of being unusable by anyone except a powder mage– but again, that’s just me being a nerd.
And while it’s a serviceable enough fantasy adventure, Promise of Blood still has some notable flaws. There are a couple of fleshed out female characters, which is good– but at the same time, there’s some weird undercurrents to the book. Like, there’s a setting detail that the royal cabal of mages are inherently horny and sexy due to their powers, and so they all have their own harems. And then there’s another villainous character with a whole estate full of scantily clad sex-servants, which … like, I dunno, maybe McClellan just likes the word ‘harem.’ Maybe he’s been reading Mike Truk. I dunno. There’s also some business with a sidekick character getting noticed as “oh, she’s a woman,” by one of the protagonists, which … well, said sidekick is nineteen, so it’s not COMPLETELY skeevy, but it’s not exactly good optics. Especially considering the sidekick (who was actually one of my favorite characters in the book) is mute. She can communicate through sign language, buuuut the whole thing just feels kinda hinky.
Still, these are fairly small quibbles in the long run. Promise of Blood is a solid adventure that’s not too goofy- but not too grim, either. McLellan leaves enough plot threads dangling that I’ll probably read the next two books in the series … eventually. As while I enjoyed the story well enough, I’m not excited enough to gobble up the rest of the trilogy just quite yet.