Jon Courtenay Grimwood made his name as a science fiction novelist; now, for his eleventh book (and first in five years), he’s turned to fantasy, beginning his ‘Assassini’ sequence. The 15th-century Venice of The Fallen Blade is ruled by a dynasty founded by Marco Polo, with a certain rivalry between the Regent Alonzo and his sister-in-law Alexa, mother of the imbecilic Duke Marco IV. As the novel begins, a mysterious silver-haired boy is found captive aboard a Mamluk ship; given the name Tycho, he has no memory of how he came to be there, but hungers for blood and possesses preternatural reflexes, which latter catch the eye of Venice’s chief assassin, Atilo, who has it in mind to train the boy to become his heir. Elsewhere, the planned strategic marriage of the Duke’s cousin, Lady Giulietta, is derailed when the Mamluks kidnap her in revenge for the attack on their ship – and the intrigues only continue…
Grimwood brings his Venice to life well, in both its atmosphere (squalid and smelly) and the complexity of its political and social codes (for example, a soldier’s instinctive action to save a noble’s life may be tantamount to choosing factions). The action sequences are involving, and Grimwood also evokes the conflicting senses of reluctance and desire felt by both Tycho as he discovers more of who (or what) he is, and Giulietta as she becomes attracted to him. The deployment of the supernatural is strikingly low-key: the word ‘vampire’ is not in the novel’s vocabulary (nor does Tycho quite fit that mould); and, on the occasions when characters do use magic, there’s nothing flashy about it – it comes across as just another tool to be used.
At the same time, it can be difficult to fully engage with The Fallen Blade. Many of the characters commit violent and abhorrent acts (as befits their society and their positions within it), and don’t always have enough charisma in the reader’s eyes to balance that out, even in the case of Tycho, the book’s de facto ‘hero’. Nor is the novel always sufficiently clear on the status of its various political intrigues. Still, The Fallen Blade is a good start to its series, and carries the promise of revelations and complex plots aplenty to come.
David Hebblethwaite blogs at Follow the Thread.