The Fallen Blade
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Published 2011 417 pages
Summary (from book jacket)
Venice, 1407. The city’s rulers command the seas and dictate the law. Yet they fear assassins more deadly than their own, and their canals running red with blood.
Duke Marco rules Venice in theory, but he’s a simpleton so his aunt and uncle vie for power in his name. But an act of aggression will overshadow their conflict, when the Duke’s young cousin is kidnapped by Mamluk pirates. And her abduction will trigger war.
Elsewhere Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, has cut a man’s throat. Hearing a noise, he turns back to find a boy drinking from the victim’s wound, The speed with which the angel-faced boy dodges his dagger stuns Atilo, and he resolves to hunt him down. Not to silence him, but because he’s found the impossible – someone fit to be his apprentice.
Savage games will dictate Venice’s fate as enemies emerge within and beyond its borders. And those who harness the city’s darkest powers must be both ruthless and fortunate to survive.
The Fallen Blade by is the first part of The Assassini, an historical fantasy series set in renaissance Venice, by acclaimed science fiction author Jon Courtenay Grimwood. This is the first book I’ve read from this author so I can’t give The Fallen Blade any context in respect to Grimwood’s sci-fi works – however as a work of historical fantasy this novel has left me feeling highly conflicted…
The characters of The Fallen Blade cover a wide section of Venetian society – from the lowest beggar street-children to the highest echelons of the ruling elite. The events in the story cover a period of just over a year. This year sees young Lady Giulietta to be unwillingly married to King Janus of Cyprus but on the eve of her wedding she is kidnapped. Atilo, the leader of the Venetian assassins loses nearly all of his recruits in a battle with werewolves and needs to find himself a worthy heir. Venice is ruled by Duke Marco IV but he’s an imbecile – so Alexa, his mother, and his uncle Prince Alonzo are constantly intriguing for the power to control Venice. These are the main plot points yet there are a hundred subplots bubbling away alongside these making The Fallen Blade a complex story that’s not always easy to grasp.
Against this rich backdrop of Venetian history, Grimwood introduces fantasy elements. Men who can change in vicious beasts (known as the krieghund, these are werewolves who work for the German emperor) as well as an alchemist, a witch and a vampire-like creature by the name of Tycho. Tycho is one of the leading characters of the story but he is something of a mystery. He doesn’t know who he is, what he is, or where he came from. He thirsts for blood, is super-strong and super-quick, can’t stand daylight and has trouble crossing running water – so the reader assumes he’s a vampire although none of the characters of the story every refer to him as such.
On the plus side the story’s setting of renaissance Venice is vividly imagined and well executed. Venice has a rich history of trade, warfare and political manoeuvrings so there’s no shortage of interesting background material with this time period and the author has used that to his advantage. However it takes more than that to make an engaging novel.
On the downside The Fallen Blade seems to have a real disconnect between the fantasy elements and their setting. With little fantasy world building the reader is often dumped into a narrative where there is some fantasy creature at work but it’s not explained or given any kind of background – this makes the story confusing. The writing style doesn’t help here either with disjointed scenes often abruptly strung together and narrative that jumps about a lot too. I can live with this though because this is the first book in a series and I assume there will be some kind of fantasy world development in later novels. The jumpy narrative just means that as a reader you need to pay constant attention to what you’re reading – but again this is something that I can do.
What I find more challenging about this novel is that I can’t work out who the heroes are. Pretty much all of the characters in this story are irritating or hateful – and the one’s that aren’t are quickly killed off. I get that the author is probably making some point about the reality of life where there are no absolute heroes just various levels of self-serving, amoral behaviour… but generally readers need at least one character that they can empathise with otherwise its hard to care if people live or die. And above all fantasy fiction needs heroes – it’s certainly one of the main reasons that I read it. If I didn’t want to read about heroic characters doing daring deeds I’d read literary fiction instead…
But the most difficult part of the novel is the constant bloody violence, usually against women or girls. I get that in the 15th century women had less value than a prize pig to most men, and that the author was probably trying to keep the story in step with the time period but still, there is a limit, and this book passed it for me. I enjoy reading horror fiction so I’m not overly sensitive about fictional acts of violence but this book is utterly abhorrent in places. Another gripe that raised audible sighs from me on more than one occasion is the reaction of every character to wet themselves or void their bowels when ever frightened or hurt. It happens in every other scene of violence in the book and seemed to me to be not only annoyingly repetitive within the narrative but also just another way for the author to degrade his characters – usually just before they died.
So in summing up I think it’s fair to say that for female readers the bad points out way the good points of this book. I don’t wish to sound like a raging feminist (because truly I’m not) but there is a real lack of good female characters in this story – perhaps more noticeable because urban fantasy, even historical urban fantasy, usually overflows with heroic female characters (to the point of occasional ridicule from this reviewer.) However Lady Giulietta is by turns pathetic and irritating while Duchess Alexa is scheming and possibly evil. Lady Desdaio shows some promise, she is kind and stands up for herself but is constantly defined by the author as “lush” of bosom – as if that’s her only positive attribute worth mentioning. Giulietta and Desdaio are both spotless virgins – just about every other female character is painted a crude slut or is a victim of rape or murder.
However, I suppose men might enjoy this book… Maybe. If they hate women.
The Fallen Blade leaves me conflicted because I loved the vivid setting and the idea of the story – that a vampire could be captured and trained to be a Venetian assassin is just fantastic. However other aspects of the storytelling just left me cold… I’ve rated it at 3 stars but I think readers will either love or loath this book depending on personal taste.
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