The Fallen Blade
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So, I very much wanted to fall in love with this book, in the same way that I've fallen in love with some of Grimwood's previous novels, with their adrenaline-charged near-future settings and their wise-cracking sociopathic protagonists. This is a very different sort of book, and while I didn't instantly fall in love with it, I think we've now established a solid friendship that might well blossom into something deeper.
This book is an alternate history, set in a Venice ruled by Marco Polo's descendants. Also a Venice with vampires and werewolves, although neither term appears in the book. (Fulfilling the rule that the best vampire novels are the ones that never use the word vampire.) You can expect plenty of political intrigue, some pretty awesome fight scenes, and a large dose of blood, other bodily fluids, and general filth. File this one under "G is for gritty".
So, why did it take me a couple hundred pages to really start to warm to this novel? Well, part of it is that the complex strands of intrigue take a while to weave themselves together. The book does eventually get quite exciting, but the overwhelming sensation of the first hundred pages or so is of waiting for things to really kick off. Probably more significant for me is that the characters also take some time to warm to. Early on in the book, the three best options for a really sympathetic character are: the head of a secret order of assassins who work for the Dukes of Venice; an amnesiac vampire who is initially unable to understand or control his impulses to kill people; and a young woman from Venice's ruling family whose bravery and intelligence are initially matched only by her spoiledness and naiveté. (Thankfully, she grows up a lot during the course of this novel.)
However, these flaws aside, by the time we get to the end of this book (which really seems very much like the first third or quarter of a larger story rather than a standalone novel), Grimwood had sold me on everything. I'm very much looking forward to the second book.
One other aspect of the book really deserves to be singled out for praise. There's been a lot of discussion online lately of fantasy novels that don't do a brilliant job by their female characters or characters of color, often with the defense offered that, "Well, it just sucked to be female or non-white in the middle ages, so what can you do?" You can do what Jon Courtenay Grimwood does in this book, is what you can do. This book absolutely grapples with the reality of how much it did suck to be female or non-white in the early 15th century, without using this as an excuse to either eliminate women and characters of color from the book, or to deny them their own interior life, ambition, or agency within whatever scope they were able to wield it. View all my reviews