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Friday, January 14, 2011

“The Fallen Blade” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Reviewed by Robert Thompson & Liviu Suciu)

Official Jon Courtenay Grimwood Website
Order “The Fallen BladeHERE + HERE (UK)\
Read FBC Review of End of the World Blues

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British science fiction author whose bibliography includes the Arabesk trilogy, 9tail Fox, and the End of the World Blues which won the British Science Fiction Award. He also won the British Science Fiction Award for Felaheen, and has been short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award—twice, the British Fantasy Award, and the John W. Campbell Award. The Fallen Blade is Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s fantasy debut.

PLOT SUMMARY: It is the year 1407. Venice is at the height of its power. In theory, Marco IV commands, but the Duke is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle—Duchess Alexa and Prince Alonzo—rule in his stead. Within the Serene Republic, their word is law, but for all their influence, Venice's fate still lies in other hands...

Lady Giulietta is the Duke's cousin. She enjoys greater privilege than many can even dream of, but her status will demand a terrible price.

Atilo Il Mauros is head of the Scuola degli Assassini, assassins who secretly enforce Venice's will—both at home and abroad.

Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland is the bastard son of the German emperor and leader of the krieghund—the only force in Venice more feared than the Assassini.

And then there is Atilo's silver-haired apprentice. Only a boy, Tycho is already stronger and faster than any man has a right to be. He can also see in the dark and has no scent, but sunlight burns him and he fears water. Some believe he is a fallen angel. Others, a demon. Only by embracing his true nature, can Venice be saved...

CLASSIFICATION: Combining alternate history with the supernatural, The Fallen Blade is kind of like Jasper Kent’s Twelve/Thirteen Years Later with Anne Rice’s vampires and Underworld’s lycans, while written in the style of Glen Cook.

FORMAT/INFO: The Fallen Blade is 464 pages long divided over two Parts, sixty-three numbered chapters, and an Epilogue. Also includes a map, the Millioni family tree, Dramatis Personae, an interview with the author, and an excerpt from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Narration is in the third person via Tycho, Atilo Il Mauros, Lady Giulietta dei San Felice di Millioni, Captain Roderigo, Iacopo, etc. The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini Trilogy, but for the most part reads like a self-contained novel with the book coming to a satisfying stopping point.

January 27, 2011 and February 3, 2011 marks the US/UK Trade Paperback publication of The Fallen Blade via Orbit Books. Cover artwork provided by Larry Rostant.

ROBERT’S ANALYSIS: It’s been five years since Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s last novel was published, the British Science Fiction Award-winning End of the World Blues (Reviewed HERE). That book actually happens to be the only Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel I’ve ever read, but I absolutely loved it, and have every intention of going through the author’s backlist as soon as I can. That said, fantasy will always be my first love, so when I heard Jon Courtenay Grimwood was making his fantasy debut with The Fallen Blade, the book instantly became one of my most anticipated releases of 2011...

The first thing readers should understand about The Fallen Blade is that the book is an alternate history novel set in a 15th-century Venice ruled by Marco Polo’s descendants. I’m not the biggest fan of alternate history/historical fiction, but Jon Courtenay Grimwood does a tremendous job of creating a living, breathing Renaissance Venice that feels as convincing as the real thing, and is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. I particularly loved the amount of detail the author uses to establish the Millioni family and their complex political situation, which includes Duchess Alexa and Prince Alonzo vying for control of the throne, their trade routes coveted by the Mamluks, the Millioni declared as false princes by the Pope, and threats from the Germans, the Byzantines and Timur’s Mongols. Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to process all of the information that Jon Courtenay Grimwood throws at you, especially because of the manner in which he feeds readers info in tiny bits and pieces, but at the same time, it’s easy to become invested in the Renaissance Venice that the author has imagined.

Now if there is one thing negative to say about Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Venice, it’s that the setting sometimes overshadows the rest of the book. This is most evident regarding The Fallen Blade’s fantasy elements—including a vampire, werewolves (krieghund) and a witch (stregoi)—which only accounts for a small percentage of the novel. What’s so disappointing about the book’s fantasy elements is that Jon Courtenay Grimwood hardly spends any time at all explaining their purpose or presence, making them feel more like an accessory than an integral part of the novel. I can understand the mysteriousness surrounding Tycho since most of the characters in the book don’t know what he is, including Tycho himself, but what about the krieghund or the witch A’rial? Fortunately, the fantasy stuff picks up during the novel’s climax, and I’m hopeful it’s a preview of things to come in the sequel.

Characters meanwhile, are memorable and intriguing, led by Lady Giuletta and the silver-haired boy Tycho, while Lady Desdaio is the book’s most surprising character because she’s a supporting player who heavily factors into many of the novel’s most important moments. To be honest, characterization in The Fallen Blade is not particularly deep, and the characters would not be nearly as interesting if not for an unpredictable plot that forces the book’s characters through a series of engaging, life-altering circumstances. Take Lady Giuletta for example, who runs away to avoid a political marriage, becomes part of an assassination plot against the king of Cyprus, is abducted, and then falls in love with an enemy. The rest of the characters have their own issues to deal with, and seeing what drama unfolds and how they handle their situations is definitely one of the novel’s highlights.

Writing-wise, The Fallen Blade is a tale of two sides. On the one hand, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s world-building is convincing and immersive, and I was impressed by the author’s ability to manage the novel’s many different characters and subplots without losing control. On the other hand, Jon Courtenay Grimwood makes a number of questionable narrative decisions over the course of the novel. Like the uneven manner in which he shifts between viewpoints, with extended periods sometimes passing by before returning to a character—Atilo Il Mauros for instance. Or how viewpoints are provided for minor characters like Captain Roderigo and Iacopo as opposed to more important characters such as Lady Desdaio or Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland. Or the author’s decision to skip over most of Tycho’s Assassini training and the months Lady Giulietta and Prince Leopold spent together, which I felt were very significant moments in the novel that deserved a more indepth account.

I should also point out that Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s writing style in The Fallen Blade is very reminiscent of Glen Cook’s writing style from his Instrumentalities of the Night series. Including sparse prose, moments of telling instead of showing, and a noticeable level of detachment that is present in the storytelling and characterization. Personally, this wasn’t an issue for me as I’m a huge fan of Glen Cook’s work, but for others, this could be a problem.

Overall, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s fantasy debut did not live up to my high expectations or its own immense potential. Nonetheless, The Fallen Blade is a well-written novel that features a fully realized setting, engaging characters, and a gripping story rife with complex politics and heartbreaking drama. In short, The Fallen Blade is still a very good book, and I definitely plan on being there for the second Act...

LIVIU’S ANALYSIS:
I have read all 10 JC Grimwood novels before this one and none had disappointed me, while a few of them were superb - most notably his last loosely linked trilogy of sf novels set in today's world but with far future links, Stamping Butterflies, 9 Tail Fox and End of the World Blues which are as good as literary sf gets in the 21st century so far. So ultra-high expectations for this one and to my surprise I was somewhat disappointed in The Fallen Blade for unexpected reasons.

I thought this will be a blow me away A++ novel based on its premise - alt-history fantasy set in
in the early 1400's Venice of an Earth with some magic and while the announced hot-topic vampires from the cover and the blurb gave me a little doubt, it turned out that The Fallen Blade stumbled where I have never dreamed it will happen: the novel's style is very fractured so it just does not flow and hits narrative walls constantly, while also having a contrived plot in key situations, where things seem to happen only because the author wanted it so his selected set of surviving characters could get away from hopeless situations which of course kill his "sacrifice" characters... No rhyme or reason beyond authorial fiat and that was the second major negative.

On the plus side, The Fallen Blade has a lot of goodies: extremely good atmosphere you can really visualize and even "feel" the Venice of 1400's; great vivid characters in Tycho, Atilo, Giulietta, Desdaio, Alexa and several others and some twists and turns that are excellent, while all the world building and differences from our world are almost pitch perfect inserted at crucial points.

I would give it a B for the many goodies which kept me chugging at it, though I had to pause often because of those narrative walls that just took me away from its world and while I am interested in the next book, it won't be the asap as this one was. I hope the author will raise the quality of the prose and plotting to the level of his early novels since the series has high potential with the implied depth of the world he created and the vivid characters that starred in this one.

6 comments:

K.C. May said...

Thanks for the in-depth review. I've been enamored of assassin stories lately and this one had caught my eye. My cursor was hovering over the Buy button. Now that I've read your reviews, I'll definitely sample on my Kindle first.

Liviu said...

Imho this book has a style very similar to Glen Cook or S. Erikson, so if you like how those write you may like it more than I did; personally I just dislike books that do not flow and only strong interest in their content would make me read them

Anonymous said...

Disappointing.

I'm a Grimwood fan and have read everything of his that I can get my hands on.

His latest offering of vampires, witches and other fell creations is not my usual fare. But, for example, I love the ghouls in Charles Stross "Laundry" series because they are treated wih the humour such subject matter deserves. In contrast, Grimwood's characters are meant to be serious but lack the necessary punch to pull it off.

I could not get into the tale, the plot just didn't hook me. I started skipping around page 60 and gave up with severe case of disinterest before page 150. Maybe it improves in the following 250 pages but I can't bring myself to care anymore.

I really hope Grimwood gets his act together again, and soon, because I'm hanging out for more of his good stuff.

Liviu said...

Anon: I felt in large parts the same way, though the book had a lot of great moments that reminded me of JCG of old; the irony is that I did not feel that vampires - anyway there is only one so far - were the issue, but the way the story was told.

A. Hartman Adams said...

This was really a missed opportunity of a book. I agree with your positive points (somewhat), but honestly the writing--on structural level--is just dreadful. It reads as if it's been abridged by a drunkard. I found myself rolling my eyes a lot.

Liviu said...

"the writing--on structural level--is just dreadful"

I am not sure at what this refers:

I see 3 possibilities;

- the style/flow - very fractured indeed and I dislike that a lot but quite a few authors (eg Cook, Erikson) write that way and are popular; for me this was the major issue of the novel, it was like JCG was channeling Glen Cook rather than writing his usual smooth prose from his sff novels

- the plot - here I also agree that there were some problems especially in the light of later revelations, but to some extent we have to wait for later books for full judgement since sometimes the author has a clear picture of the whys and we see only part of it for now; a lot of how magic or the supernatural work is just hinted and there may be a good reason - beyond plot convenience - why *** could do the blow away the enemy stuff only when ***, rather than all the time

This issue of "magic works at 1 pm but not at 2 pm" is very common and one reason i tend to prefer fantasies with low, subtle magic

- the dark stuff, blood, gore, occasionally over the top descriptions - these are par for the course in a lot of modern sff and I did not mind them and occasionally found them brutally refreshing

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