Promise of Blood was not a book I jumped to buy. I had heard of it here and there, and seen its author, Brian McClellan, mentioned as well several times.
All I can say is, I wish I’d picked up this book sooner (I read a library copy, but since then I’ve ordered both its sequel, The Crimson Campaign, and a copy of Promise of Blood for myself. But enough of the introduction, let’s get to the book itself. As in my past reviews, I’ll separately discuss the setting, characters, plot, and, because this is a fantasy novel, the magic.
The Setting: For me as a reader, the setting is rarely the most important thing in a story to me, and rarer still is it something I decide to specifically highlight when discussing a book. (The general exception to this rule is Brandon Sanderson’s work. And I didn’t mention him here just for that, but I’ll elaborate later in the review. Oh, shoot, I just remembered that I read Steelheart recently too and never reviewed it! That’ll have to happen soonish.) But back to the reason we’re here, Promise of Blood. The story begins with a successful coup d’etat by Field Marshal Tamas, one of our viewpoint characters, and the story really is about the aftermath of the coup. What I particularly liked is the way McClellan handled the coup itself and the depiction of what went on. We read stories about revolutions all the time, but all too often they’re portrayed as overly simplistic, something I’ve become more aware of as I’ve progressed further in my studies of history. The society set up here, with the major factions that Tamas used for the coup, is excellently done, and as in the real world, it is shown that overthrowing a government is the easy part: the hard part comes afterward.
While we’re on the topic of history, I should also note that the setting (and some of the plot) reminded me of history in a good way. The plot revolving around the coup was reminiscent of the French revolution, though Tamas’s revolution overall went better than it’s likely real world inspiration. Additionally, the kingdom of Adro to me felt like some inspiration was taken from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (based on some names, the organization, and the general feel of the society. I’m sure I spotted some Hungarian-influenced names.)
As the story progresses, our view of the world broadens as neighboring kingdoms enter the plot, and as Taniel (one of the four viewpoint characters in the story) leaves the story’s central location, Adro’s capitol, and travels across the kingdom. We’re now well set up for the world to continue to expand as the series continues.
To surmise my thoughts on the setting, I really enjoyed it. It felt like McClellan drew a lot from history in a good way. The world he’s created feels real in that actions have consequences, and we clearly see just how complicated running a kingdom is (especially after you just overthrew the old ruler). The friction between the powder mages and royal cabal magic users also provides a good representation of real-world rivalries between long-established groups and newer ones. And of course guns+fantasy=awesome.
Characters: Promise of Blood features four viewpoint characters, of which three have a major role and one has a minor role (reminiscent of the interlude viewpoints in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series–though that connection may be because I’m currently reading Words of Radiance.)
The first is Field Marshal Tamas, the architect of the coup and arguably the focus on the book, though I expect that he might not be the ‘main main character’ for the entirety of the series’. One thing I really like about Tamas (and Adamat, who I will discuss next) is that they are older characters. So often the viewpoint characters in fantasy novels are young, either in their teens or early 20s, that it’s really refreshing to see a book dominated by older characters. It allows you to write a very different story, and that’s part of what made Promise of Blood so memorable for me. Tamas has been around for a while, he understands how the world works, and he goes through with his coup even though he feels uncomfortable in a non-military leadership position because he truly believes he made the right choice, and is willing to live with the ramifications. But despite his strong focus on his end goal, he doesn’t blindly move forward, as evidenced by his reaction to the dying words of the emperor’s cabal.
Next we have Adamat, also a more unusual character than is generally seen in fantasy. He is also on the older side, a little portly, and he is a retired police inspector. As might be expected, his plotline is heavy on the mystery and intrigue, which quickly escalates as a mysterious figure begins to blackmail him for information on Tamas, putting Adamat in a situation where the reader cannot easily say what the best choice is. He is investigating the mysterious words said by each of the members of the royal cabal as they died, and his search takes him deep into the city and into the world’s history, assisted by his perfect memory. It’s through him that we see much of the inner workings of the kingdom as he investigates key people in regard to both the original cryptic message and more standard political plots. Also, as he is the only major viewpoint character who has no access to magic, he fills the role of character who realizes he’s in over his head, but does his duty anyway, which I admire.
Our last major viewpoint character is Taniel, Tamas’s son and a powder mage like his father. He is younger, more of the ‘standard’ aged fantasy character, but at the same time he’s familiar with the world, as he served in the armed forces for some time prior to the story after he and his father had a falling-out. They mend fences enough for Taniel to work for his father in tracking down the lone survivor of the royal cabal, and he spends most of the book outside of the capitol city, which is good as it provides some different visual setting, and lets his plotline delve into the more mystical aspects of the world (which most of the civilized world, Taniel included, no longer believes in). I feel like he will take a more central role as the story progresses, as he is the most heavily involved in the whole deal with the gods, which will likely wind up being the main conflict.
Our final viewpoint character is a minor one, so there isn’t so much to say. Nila starts as a washerwoman for a noble family as the coup is going on. She rescues their son, saving him from likely death along with the rest of the nobility, then gets briefly mixed up with the counterrevolutionaries before becoming a servant of Tamas’s, where she plots (unsuccessfully) to assassinate him. That’s all she does, really, which is why I compare her viewpoint to the interludes in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, a hint of something to come, a viewpoint which will hopefully be expanded upon as the series progresses.
This is already going long, so I won’t spend long on the side characters. They serve their roles well in support of ‘their’ main character, and most, if not all, of them have enough depth and past to them that they’ll remain relevant (and probably grow more important) as the story progresses. In particular, Ka-poel, Taniel’s mute companion (and most active female character in the book), and Olem, Tamas’s bodyguard who doesn’t need to sleep ever (I feel like I’m not alone when I wish I had that ability), were standouts in particular.
I saw other reviewers point out that there is a lack of prominent female characters in the book, and I agree with them. But in my opinion the story is strong as is, and I recall McClellan stating in an interview that he hopes to give the females more central roles, and I hope that it will begin with The Crimson Campaign, the next book in the sequel. (Ka-poel would be an interesting one, as would Vlora, Taniel’s ex-betrothed and fellow powder mage.)
Plot: I feel like I’ve mentioned much of it already by this point, but it would help to put my general thoughts together. Here I will go back to one of my earlier statements where I compared McClellan’s work to Brandon Sanderson’s. The story feels like it’s unfolding in a Sandersonian style, somewhat similar to Mistborn (again, I’m probably seeing the parallel more strongly because I’m reading a Sanderson book now). It starts out with a more ‘mundane’ plotline, with the coup and its aftermath, but we soon start to learn that there are greater, supernatural forces that are at work and that they will play a major role. Basically, I feel like the book has the Sandersonian feel to it while strongly maintaining its own identity. The similarities in style and how the story reads make sense, as McClellan had the opportunity to study under Brandon Sanderson (and I don’t think it’s wrong to say that I envy him for that.) As such, there will undoubtedly be similarities, but again McClellan’s voice is very much his own. The world is much grittier, for one thing. But to put it simply, if I read a book I find myself thinking, “This kind of feels like a Brandon Sanderson book, but it’s not, because of this this and this, and it’s great,” then the author did a damn good job. I don’t think anyone would complain about being positively compared to Brandon Sanderson. I know I wouldn’t. I finished this book eagerly wanting more, to see where things went. That’s a very good thing.
Magic: Now, for the fun part, the magic! There are four ‘types’ of magic that I’ve been able to pick up on throughout the book. The first is what the book is probably best known for, the powder mages. Being able to control gunpowder, make explosions, and control the flight of bullets–count me in! The magic is powerful enough but limited enough as well, and more importantly it give the wielder the opportunity to be clever with it (another Sandersonian trait–but I think I’ve mentioned him enough already). Tamas in particular gets some really cool scenes using his magic later in the book when he runs into some enemy problems.
The second magic system is that of the Privileged, which is a more ‘classic’ elemental magic, showy and very powerful. It too allows for cleverness, though more in the area of doing neat little things with the five powers as opposed to the more scrappy fights of the powder mages. It is also kept more mysterious, to maintain contrast with the much more scientific gunpowder magic. I like that this magic take more of a back seat, but I definitely look forward to seeing what it’s fully capable of before the series ends.
The last two types of magic are more subdued than the others, at least for now. The first is the idea of the Knacked, people who have access to neither of the main magic systems, but have some other cool talent, chief among them Olem’s ability to not need to sleep and Adamat’s perfect memory (I think it was a Knack, at least). And last, we have the resident mystery man, Mihali the cook/god, who has a so far not completely defined powers, apart from being able to make infinite, calming food. I expect we’ll see more of him, and the other gods, as the story progresses.
To quickly conclude, I really enjoyed this book. I had a good mix of cool new ideas, while being familiar enough that it’s not too overwhelming. It was fun, relatively quick read. Not completely perfect, but considering it’s McClellan’s debut novel, little gripes are easily ignored. However, I think the best way to finally sum up and end this long-running review is to say that I’m eagerly looking forward to the release of The Crimson Campaign in May.
Edit: Nearly forgot, but here’s the awesome book trailer for Promise of Blood! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDb4HNygUwg