a review by Rebecca Muir
When I was asked to read and review Much Fall of Blood, I noted that it was the third in a series, but I decided to plunge in and read it anyway without reading the first two books – that was probably a mistake. It was not until about a third of the way through the book that I felt like I could follow everything that was happening. Once I was on top of the storyline, however, I found the pace of the book quite good – it drew me along and kept my interest.
The book is quite long, something of an epic. It is set in the mid sixteenth century in central and eastern Europe, spanning across the Holy Roman Empire, Venice and its colonies, Hungary and into Mongol territory around the Black Sea. It has more of the feel of a fantasy novel than a historical novel however, in large part because of the amount of sorcery, demons and black magic that pervades the story.
The book weaves many narrative threads together. In a twist on the traditional plotline, there is the rescue of the Dragon (who is also the dashing, heroic prince) from the tower by the fair maiden (who is actually neither fair nor a maiden) – Prince Vlad of Valahia has been imprisoned throughout his formative years, but is “rescued” by the Countess Elizabeth who has sold her soul to the Devil in order to remain eternally young and beautiful. Vlad must discover not only how to live in the world he has been shut off from, but also how to lead his people, raise and support an army and win a war. He must also come to terms with the darkness he sees inside himself.
Another thread follows Prince Manfred, his mentor Erik and their contingent of Knights of the Holy Trinity, who are acting as escorts for the envoy from the Ilkhan Mongols to the Golden Horde Mongols. They must travel into unknown territory, relying more on their wits and disciplined training than on their protected status as diplomats. Inadvertently along for the ride is the “horse boy” David, a thief from the back streets of Jerusalem who can’t seem to stay out of trouble.
There is also Bortai and her brother Kildai, young Mongol nobles on the run from enemies in another clan, rivals to their claim for leadership of the Horde. Bortai must use her talents and determination to keep her brother safe, but who says she can’t have a little fun along the way? Language and cultural barriers lead to some comical misunderstandings when she meets the Knights of the Holy Trinity.
Then there is the pack of werewolves who are preparing to renew an ancient pact of blood magic, and who are working to protect the royal family their oath binds them to.
Weaving around these main narrative threads are the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and Venice, the machinations of the possessed Grand Duke of Lithuania, the dark scheming of Countess Elizabeth and the cruel and rather stupid Emeric, king of Hungary, her “nephew”.
The book had strong characterization and some humour to balance out the darker themes. The different threads of the story were drawn together quite well. I sometimes felt like the authors were trying to keep the reader guessing by hinting obliquely at something that was fairly obvious, so at times I wished that they would just get to the point instead of dancing around the issue, but this was a small fault not a large one.
Personally I’m not really into the whole black magic, sell-your-soul to the devil thing, so that was an aspect of the book I endured rather than enjoyed, but overall I surprised myself by enjoying the book much more by the end than I thought, and the dark themes of the book were at least in most part subjected to the rule of good triumphing over evil. Fans of the series will not need any persuasion to read this book, but if you haven’t read any of the series and you are interested in sixteenth century Europe and Asia, epic fantasy, a little romance, a few good battles and demons, werewolves, and black magic, then I would recommend finding the first book, The Shadow of the Lion.
Previously published in Dark Matter issue 5, September 2011. This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.