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Book Review: The Fallen Blade

The Fallen Blade (Act I of the Assassini Trilogy)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Orbit, 2011

Venice, a critic has remarked, is a city of closed doors, inaccessible galleries, and hidden gardens. The trite modern confection of the place sanitizes a deep and complicated history, a history built on a thousand years of knife fights, desperate assignations, and insane gambles on heavy-laden ships at sea. Thousands of tourists every year take in the sights of the place and leave without ever having understood what they were seeing: Viriconium, Lankhmar, New Crobuzon … dozens of fantasy-novel settings draw their inspiration from the same source, rippling it and transmuting it along the way.

Sci-fi veteran Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s new book The Fallen Blade (the woefully-titled first book in “The Assassini Trilogy”) indulges gloriously in the same transmutations, but he hasn’t bothered to transport the results. Instead, he’s written a fantasy novel set in Venice itself, in 1407, at the peak of its status as a mercantile world power. In his fancy, the Millioni family (descendants of Marco Polo, who in his day was known as Il Millioni, “Sir Millions,” as a testament to his propensity for exaggeration) rule the city – at the time of this story, the nominal ruler is Duke Marco, although his aunt and uncle wield the real power, and that power is connived-at and contested on virtually every level of the Venetian nobility (and foreign powers). The Duke’s feisty young cousin, Lady Giulietta, also contests that power – hopelessly, it seems to her, as in the scene where a casual comment from Bishop Theodore sets her thoughts wandering down bitter, well-worn pathways:

“How old are you?”

An odd question, Giulietta decided, from the man who presented her to the crowds gathered in the Piazza San Marco on her naming day. “Fifteen.”

Archbishop Theodore smiled sadly. “And already you know how Venice works. You should have been …”

“What?” she demanded.

Sent to a nunnery, whipped more often, drowned at birth like a kitten? Those were her uncle’s usual suggestions. She’d survived her share of whippings. It was the Regent’s contempt she found harder to take. Aunt Alexa wished she’d been Marco’s brother. That way, two Millioni would stand between Prince Alonzo and the throne, two heirs being harder to murder than one.

Giulietta simply wished she’d been a boy.

This isn’t precisely true (Giulietta is far too alluring – and enjoys being alluring far too much – to make it so): what the lady really wants is to be physically powerful enough to refuse the pre-ordained fate her family and society have lined up for her. She’s led a life of privilege and comfort, but it hasn’t belonged to her, and it can be revoked in an instant by her distracted elders. What she wants is the ability to command her own destiny.

The agent of that destiny is the book’s main – and most lavishly imagined – character, a beautiful, bright-skinned boy named Tycho, who’s supernaturally strong, fast, and durable, whose skin burns when exposed to sunlight, and who feels toward the humans all around him predatory urges he himself scarcely understands. It’s a mark of Grimwood’s superb storytelling ability that readers can put all these things together, come up with a quick divination (Tycho is a vampire), and never for a minute feel tempted to douse The Fallen Blade in kerosene and set it ablaze. Thus the central difference between this novel and certain recent $18 million dollar best-sellers: Grimwood isn’t cashing in on a craze, he’s organically developing a story entirely his own.

That story will keep readers breathlessly hooked until the very last page – The Fallen Blade, despite having a depressingly awful title, is what kids today would call “disgusting” – in other words, slam-bang fantastic. Naturally, Tycho dominates every scene he’s in, but Grimwood has nevertheless furnished readers with a cast of characters as varied and wonderfully delineated as the old gang over in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice.” And fans of Venice (the real Venice, the one that hides herself from all those tourists with their out-thrust camera phones) will be pleased at seeing how skillfully Grimwood makes Venice herself a character throughout the book:

A thousand events happened next morning. Fishing boats docked on Venice’s northern edge, their nets safely reset. That day’s catch would go to feed the city, since it was Friday and eating meat that day invited the fires of hell.

Since none of the three corpses caught in the nets belonged to anyone who mattered, no fishermen were dragged to the leads, made to confess sins belonging to someone else and executed.

Master shipwrights scrambled from their mattresses, having bedded their wives for warmth in the minutes before the Arzanale bell rang. Apprentices and journeymen tumbled their women and left them with half promises of marriage, and a newly made brat to widen their wombs, as like as not … Whores swore, splashing water between sore thighs as brothels closed or shifts changed. Losers staggered from gaming houses, having mortgaged already mortgaged houses, as card sharps shook aces from their sleeves and rolled dice for that day’s luck, knowing that it was already secure.

Readers will see some of the plot twists coming a mile off, and they will chuckle (perhaps not in the way the author intended) at some of the shallower characterizations but even so, they’ll end up applauding.

The sci-fi/fantasy market is full of new and not inexpensive novels, all vying for a bit of what pollsters tell us is a shrinking audience. Readers browsing in big retail bookstores may want to feed their life-long hunger for really good, meaty, intelligent new novels in the genre … but how do they make their choices? In the case of The Fallen Blade, even if Larry Rostant’s dark and arresting cover doesn’t grab those readers, here’s hoping the book itself does. If the first volume is any indication, this trilogy is going to be outstanding – nobody, and especially no fan of the genre – should miss it.

 

 

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