Promise of Blood is the first novel in Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, published in 2013. I first came across it in the excellent Geekritique’s blog, The 25 Most Anticipated Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2015, where he talked about the third book in the trilogy (it was also the blog that got me to read Leviathan Wakes). It sounded awesome, so I bought the first in the trilogy, then put it on the shelf for over 18 months…
As an aside here, if you don’t already, you should totally follow Geekritique, because that blog is just fantastic, and is my go-to for keeping up with news like this!
Anyway. I started to read it two weeks ago and, as is true of anything that isn’t a Star Wars novel, was a bit hesitant at first, not really knowing what I would be in for, and all that. A lot of books I start, but give up on because I’m just not that into them, for whatever reason. While I liked Brian McClellan’s writing, I felt a little like something was off at first, like the story was rushing a little, but I determined to stick it out for five chapters, as they weren’t exactly long.
Well, I was amazed!
I’m not going to discuss the story in any real detail here, but give more of an overview, however there may well still be spoilers, so proceed at your own peril!
The world of the Powder Mage trilogy is basically magic and muskets. Magic users exist in what we’d think of as a traditional sense, they’re called Privileged and they wear rune-covered gloves to do their thing. In the land of this trilogy, there are nine distinct kingdoms, with the action taking place in what appears to be the central land-space, Adro. Each of these kingdoms is, obviously, ruled over by a King, who has a royal cabal of Privileged sorcerers. Promise of Blood opens on the night of a coup in Adro, led by the powerful Powder Mage, Field Marshal Tamas. Powder Mages are a bit like magic users who can manipulate black powder in some form or other – Tamas appears to be able to control (I think it’s called “bounce”) bullets without the need for a gun, for instance. These Powder Mages are referred to as Marked, which is a bit like a rank below Privileged. Finally, there are more minor folks called Knacked, who have some kind of special ability – Tamas’ bodyguard Olem, for instance, never needs to sleep – but they aren’t particularly powerful in the more traditional sense.
So anyway, Tamas kills the king of Adro, along with most of the nobility, in what feels like a magically-imbued French Revolution. He also dispatches the entire royal cabal, but it turns out there is powerful, old magic in play whereby anyone who kills the king of any of the nine kingdoms will have his own days numbered, something called “Kresimir’s Promise”. Finding out what this is all about forms the first portion of the book.
When Tamas survives an attempt on his life, he determines to ferret out the traitor who arranged it, which forms the second portion. Tamas pays the inspector Adamat to investigate each of his council, while he sends his son Taniel to kill the last surviving member of the royal cabal, who is living in exile halfway up a mountain. Throughout all of this, there is a threat of invasion from the nearby kingdom of Kez. The Kez army is led by an extremely powerful sorcerer who is attempting to bring the god Kresimir back to earth, in a holy place on the same mountain that Taniel is dispatched to…
The story has a lot going on – there are so many twists and turns, I can’t begin to cover them all here and do them justice! The world of this book is so rich and vibrant, the magic system so interesting and new, the characters so wonderfully well-written, and the politics and intrigue so compelling, I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
I was initially put off a little by just how fast-moving the story appeared to be, as I felt we weren’t getting a good look at the world the author had created, but it turns out my fears were unfounded – this is definitely an action novel, but the pace of that action has no adverse impact on the lore, as we learn as we go along.
Something I really appreciated was how the book didn’t attempt to over-compensate for its genre. So often with fantasy novels these days, authors appear to feel the need to drop f-bombs and have gratuitous sex-scenes to make us feel like we really are reading a book for adults, and not kids. While there is the odd “shit” thrown in, overall the book seems to know what it is and go with it, and we get exposition when the characters are chasing each other down, rather than inexplicably in a brothel. So I definitely appreciated that.
If I were to really level a criticism at the book, it’s that sometimes we seemed to move too fast. For the first portion, Taniel is accompanied by two mercenaries as he tries to track down a Privileged, and one of these mercenaries is something called a Mage Breaker. He can basically nullify the powers of a sorcerer in the area, and it sounds like an incredibly cool concept. We’re told it’s really rare, and then he dies (I did warn about spoilers!) I just felt like we could have seen some more with this character, or more exploration into the magical system – though I can’t deny, we’re pretty much given all of the information to make this whole book make sense and function well, so it really is a nit-pick… Of course, there are two more books in the series to get through yet, as well as a few novellas, which sound pretty amazing. And there’s this:
There’s a new trilogy coming, starting “early 2017”, so I’m super excited for that!
Overall, this book is amazing, and I cannot recommend it enough. I’ve just taken delivery of Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn trilogy, which I’ve wanted to read for a while now, so I plan to read both trilogies interspersed, so look for The Crimson Campaign (which I believe is equally as good, despite being the second book in a trilogy) to come soon!