The Promise of Blood, the first book in the Powder Mage series, is a trilling and accomplished debut by author Brian McClellan. The novel opens with a bang as readers are thrown into the midst of a bloody coup as Field Marshall Tamas and his soldiers dispose of the corrupt nobility and the powerful Privileged. It’s a hell of a way to start a story and McClellan quickly establishes Tamas as a man who is willing to do what needs to be done for the greater good of the common folk. Of course, all is not quite as it seems as the bloody coup was initially presaged by the King’s professed intent to offer concession to Adro’s long-time enemies. That is only the tip of the iceberg as the deaths of the Privileged uncover deeper problems of a more magical nature that threat not just Adro but the entire world.
The Promise of Blood introduces and interesting and nuanced world in which magic plays an important role in one’s social standing and comes a variety of different flavors. Field Marshall Tamas and many of soldiers are the titular powder mages able to ignite and use gunpowder to various ends from careful and supernatural aim of bullets to imbibing the substance to gain a perceptive edge and burst of energy. There are the Privileged, the more traditional mage types whose art is shrouded in mystery and rumor and who have been the power behind the throne for generations. Last, there are the knacked whose magical abilities are varied and unique sometimes useful and sometimes not. While McClellan doesn’t go into major details about the nature of magic in his world he manages to convey its importance in the world social structure and the means through which each type of magic complements and contrasts one another. McClellan has taken a show not tell approach right off the bat as the abilities of each mage type is expressed through their actions; in the case of the novels opening that would be destructive; violent, and wholly exciting combat.
Much of The Promise of Blood deals with the sticky and complicated political situation resulting from the coup as Tamas and six conspirators attempt to establish a new government. However, the appears of a mysterious and extremely powerful Privileged in the novel’s opening introduces an equally important quest that delves deep into the history and mythology of McClellan’s world. As the plot unfurls McClellan bounces between three main points of view: Adamat, an inspector hired by Tamas who remembers everything he sees and hears; Tamas himself, and Tamas’ son Taniel Two-Shot.
Each of our three leads is well drawn and McClellan is quick to lean both on their strengths and weaknesses. Adamat’s loyalty is called into question with blackmail and the detective’s internal conflict between his general desire for justice and a desire to see his family safe plays out nicely over the course of the novel. Taniel’s resistance to existing in his father’s shadow and his own apprehension about his own place in the world manifests in his independent spirit and what appears to be a growing addiction to sniffing powder. Tamas is perhaps McClellan’s most complex character as the Field Marshall seems like a genuinely decent man willing to do terrible things in order safeguard the safety and lives of those who cannot protect themselves. While I genuinely found myself engaged with each of the main POVs I admit that McClellan’s novel is a bit heavy on the male perspective. While there are several female character’s introduced we get very little from their perspective, save for one, and I would have loved to have seen more from a female perspective more involved in the action heavy sections of the novel.
The Promise of Blood presents a nuanced and detailed world that McClellan deftly steers readers through with nary a pause to catch our breaths. This is a novel that isn’t afraid to shy away from violence but neither does it revel in violence; this isn’t the grit of The Heroes or Red Country but the novel manages to walk a closer line to more traditional fantasy while still respecting the kind of damage that The Promise of Blood’s magic can do. This is one of the best debut novel’s I’ve read in a long time and definitely worth a look for fantasy fans looking for something rather unique and original. The second book, The Crimson Campaign, is due out in Februrary 2014 and I am definitely looking forward to seeing what McLellan has in store for us next.