Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Few cities in the world evoke an emotional reaction in the same way as Venice – even for those of us who have never been. Sure, the world is full of great cities like London, Paris, Rome, New York, Tokyo, etc, but none hold quite the same allure as Venice – canals, romance, history, power, money….

Set in renaissance Venice, I was excited by the premise of The Fallen Blade (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s first foray into fantasy where a secret order of assassins run by the aristocracy gains a powerful new member and the beginning of The Assassini trilogy.

The Duke of Venice is incapable of ruling, leaving his aunt and uncle to reign as regents, often in opposition to one another. A young Venetian noble fights against her eventual marriage of state, German Prince Leopold (a werewolf) battles to overthrow Venice, a former slave heads the Venetian Assassini, a shadow army enforcing the power of Venice, and a boy without a memory washes up on the docks – a boy like no other, what we know as a vampire.

Ahh…Venice. Grimwood sets the stage wonderfully with his description of a multi-cultural Venice in the height of its power – but it’s a dark, dangerous city haunted by the supernatural and assassins – not the romantic setting of idealized history we know and love today. However it’s a great place to set a historical, urban fantasy – a place for witches, warlocks, werewolves and vampires.

Before the above description sours you to what sounds like another generic vampire-werewolf urban fantasy, The Fallen Blade is more. The supernatural is merely a vehicle, a secondary player in the Machiavellian politics of Renaissance Italy. The powerful city-state maneuvers to stay ahead and of course gain more money and power. And the powerful of Venice use the tools available to them.

However, in all the political intrigue, Grimwood seems to get lost. The city of Venice slowly loses its allure and story suffers greatly when it ventures beyond the shores of Venice. The city should be a major character, yet never becomes more than a cool setting, ever further in the background. And the characters at the heart of it all fail to convince more often than they succeed.

Tycho is a boy without a memory, a boy who slowly discovers he has is not mortal and the desires that make him strong. Tycho is recruited into the decimated ranks of the Assassini, yet he doesn’t know who he is. Tycho is the focus, but he’s also the least convincing of the characters in The Fallen Blade. His motivations fail to feel right – especially once he realizes just how powerful he is.  In combination with an infatuation, or possibly even love, with a spoiled, noble brat it becomes intolerable at times. It’s only the big revelation at the end of the book that begins to make Tycho an interesting character – too little too late.

Other characters hold up better – such as Atilo, the head of the Assassini and the mysterious Duchess Alexa. But many of the supporting characters seem out of place and forced, especially in the way they keep showing up in the most improbable of locations.

After a promising start, The Fallen Blade quickly falls flat and it’s hard to say exactly why. Yes it’s partly due Venice not being fully utilized, and partly due to the lack of believability in the motivations of so many of the characters, but mostly it’s due to something else, something less tangible. In the end the whole of it is simply mediocre. The setting is great (until the story leaves it behind), the politics intriguing, and the premise fun, but it lacks the binding to make it into the novel it could be. And that is unfortunate. 6.5/10


Anonymous said...

I agree with your review. The beginning was great, but it almost seemed like the author just tried to pack too much stuff in a book that was too short to handle it all adequately. I'm not sure if that was the real problem or not. It's kind of hard for me to put my finger on it, besides the portions of the book that were pure chaos.

Great review :) I hope you and yours are doing great.

Wise Bass said...

Another Venice/Italy-style setting with intrigue and hidden supernatural stuff? I'll probably check it out at the library, but I'm not enthusiastic.

Speculative Fiction needs to get more creative with the settings. I'm glad that it has gotten beyond the "medieval Europe" setting, but there aren't a shortage of novels out there set in Fantasy Italy.


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