Saturday, 24 May 2014

Review: 'Promise of Blood' by Brian McClellan

Field Marshal Tamas' coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas's supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should...

With the second book in the Powder Mage trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, recently being released I felt it was time for a re-read of the first book. Promise of Blood captured my attention the first time I read it largely due to how different it is: this was the first time I’d read any so-called ‘flintlock fantasy’ and I thought it was great. I’m glad to say it stood up very well to a re-read, and if anything I enjoyed it even more the second time round.

As I said, it’s different to a lot of fantasy on the shelves these days, particularly with regards to the setting. Instead of medieval Europe or thinly-disguised Asia, we have something more reminiscent of the turbulent social and political situation of France in the late 18th century. Rather than swords and sorcery, McClellan gives us intrigue and gunpowder; instead of kings and holy warriors, he gives us military leaders and corrupt priests; and, in refreshing turnaround of fantasy stereotypes both old and new, the characters he has created are human, likeable and believable. There are no all-powerful perfect heroes here, but neither are there any unsympathetic, grimdark anti-heroes; the author maintains a fine balance between his characters’ strengths and flaws, and for me it’s this that makes the novel so much fun to read.

Another of the novel’s strengths is how the magic system is so integral to the story. Generally speaking there are three main classes of magic in McClellan’s world, the most powerful being the Privileged sorcerers, who are able to access and wield destructive elemental forces, and whose Cabals have reinforced the monarchy for hundreds of years. Then there are the Knacked, regular people possessing relatively minor abilities such as never needing to sleep, or being able to discern truth from lies. Finally, and most interestingly, there are the fighting men known as Powder Mages, who have the ability to telekinetically control bullets, mentally ignite gunpowder from long distances, and actually imbibe gunpowder to augment their own strength. I have no doubt that the story would have been interesting even without the presence of any sort of magic system; but the magic, and the conflict created by it, is as much a part of McClellan’s world as the political and social turmoil, and adds an extra dimension to the upheaval caused by Tamas’ rise to power.

The main plot is woven through three major storylines: each focuses on a different character, and each is more or less equally captivating. Field Marshal Tamas is fighting to retain control of his country in the aftermath of his bloody coup against the monarchy; retired police inspector-turned-private investigator Adamat is charged by Tamas with uncovering the traitor in his ranks whilst also delving into long-forgotten lore in pursuit of a dark mystery that threatens the world; and Taniel Two-shot is sent on an unpleasant mission by his father which brings him into conflict with forces far greater than he can manage alone. The story more or less revolves around these three characters, but there is still plenty of room for other, more minor, characters, all of whom are delightful: my particular favourites are Tamas’ irreverent bodyguard Olem, the mysteriously powerful chef Mihali, and Taniel’s enigmatic mute sidekick Ka-poel. The only storyline I didn’t really engage with was that of Nila, the laundress, but I suspect she will become more important in future events.

Promise of Blood has made the shortlist for this year’s David Gemmell Morningstar Award for best debut novel, and with good reason. It already has my vote!


Click here to view Promise of Blood on Amazon UK
Click here to read my review of Hope's End, a Powder Mage short story 


  1. Great review, I was so impressed with this book when I read it last year. Just finished the second one and it's good to see the trilogy still going strong, McClellan is definitely going to go places and he's probably got my vote for the Morningstar too.


    1. Cheers Mogsy! Yeah, I've read an awful lot of lukewarm reviews of this book and can't understand why. It's good to know you found the next one to be just as good as the first. :)

  2. I bough it. THen got burried. STill want to read it, but I have seen my share of lukewarm reviews on it as well. I will get to it though, love a mix of tech and magic.