A review by Rebecca Muir
Promise of Blood is a stellar debut novel from Brian McClellan. It is set in the kingdom of Adro, a member of the Nine Nations. Like the rest of the Nine, Adro is ruled by a king, supported the Royal Cabal of magicians, known in the Nine as Privileged. However, the king of Adro is corrupt and selfish. He has let Adro slide into decline, and now Adro is on the brink of become enslaved to the neighbouring kingdom of Kez.
Field Marshall Tamas, leader of the Adran military, stages a desperate coup to overthrow the king and the nobility. He slaughters the Cabal and rounds up the nobility, putting them to the guillotine. The blood-letting is far from finished, however. Tamas must deal with royalist uprisings, a rogue Privileged who escaped the attack on the Cabal and the threat of war from Kez. There is also the eerie phrase on the lips of the Cabal as they died – “You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise”. What do they mean, and why are there sudden rumours of the return of a god?
Tamas is supported by the rest of the army, including his son Taniel with whom he has a rocky relationship, as well as an unlikely coalition of powerful people who backed his coup. He also comes to rely on the help of a retired police inspector, Adamat, especially after it becomes apparent that there is a traitor working against him.
Taniel, like Tamas, is a powder mage – not a powerful magician like a Privileged, but able to channel power through gunpowder. Taniel is a well-known marksman, famous for his ability to bring down Privileged. Accompanied by the young, enigmatic “savage”, Ka-poel, he may be the one who can save the kingdom. However, Taniel has problems of his own. He is conflicted and deeply hurt, and he has some hard choices to make.
Most of the characters in Promise of Blood are conflicted in some way. They are all faced with difficult choices and they don’t always act the way I wanted them to. However, they are compellingly written. The viewpoint changes from character to character with each chapter, but I very quickly found myself identifying with each new voice. The main characters, for all their flaws, are likeable and engaging.
The plot has been well thought out and there is a good depth to the story. I kept wondering if there were actually some earlier books with these characters, because the back story is quite detailed. There is a real sense that these characters have existed prior to the book.
The pace of the book is quite good. It kept me reading but I was able to put it down and come back to it later – important for such a long book! The pace did pick up a bit more as the book progressed – I started to wonder if the paper was thicker in the latter part of the book because it seemed to take less time to read the second half!
Promise of Blood explores some important issues. One of these is loyalty. Different people are shown as expressing loyalty in different ways. Tamas is loyal to his country and his people, although some would label him a traitor. He is also loyal to his men and his son, although this is not always apparent.
Taniel has his own code of loyalty but finds that it is not always simple. What happens when different loyalties conflict or when the person or thing you are loyal to lets you down?
Adamat is loyal to his work and to his family but this also causes some hard choices. Throughout the book, loyalty is shown to be important and commendable but not simple or easy.
Another theme explored in the book is power. Different characters wield power in different ways: from the obvious, visible power of the Privileged and the powder mages, to the subtly wielded power of a shadowy political puppet master. There is the power that comes from military might or pure brawn, there is power from intrigue and a mind that is a step ahead of others and there is power from blackmail and leverage. The use and abuse of power is also looked at. The motives and actions of different characters and their handling of the various forms of power are displayed throughout the book.
Promise of Blood has a lot to recommend it. There is a well-imagined and portrayed world with lots of potential for future development and exploration. There are beautifully written characters with great depth to them. There is discussion of important ideas, and there is drama and intrigue.
It is not a book for young readers but for adults who like fantasy, action, mystery and thought-provoking reading, this book is well worth the read. I am looking forward to the second instalment, due out in May 2014.