The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
CLASSIFICATION: Combining alternate history with the supernatural, The Fallen Blade is kind of like Jasper Kent’s Twelve and Thirteen Years Later crossed with Anne Rice’s vampires and Underworld’s lycans, written in the style of Glen Cook.
FORMAT/INFO: The Fallen Blade is 464 pages long divided over two Parts, sixty-three numbered chapters, and an Epilogue. Also includes a map, the Millioni family tree, Dramatis Personae, an interview with the author, and an excerpt from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Narration is in the third person via Tycho, Atilo Il Mauros, Lady Giulietta dei San Felice di Millioni, Captain Roderigo, Iacopo, etc. The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini trilogy, but for the most part reads like a self-contained novel with the book coming to a satisfying stopping point.
January 27, 2011 and February 3, 2011 marks the US/UK Trade Paperback publication of The Fallen Blade via Orbit Books. Cover artwork provided by Larry Rostant.
ANALYSIS: It’s been five years since Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s last novel was published, the British Science Fiction Award-winning End of the World Blues. That book actually happens to be the only Grimwood novel I’ve ever read, but I absolutely loved it, and have every intention of going through the author’s backlist as soon as I can. That said, fantasy will always be my first love, so when I heard Grimwood was making his fantasy debut with The Fallen Blade, the book instantly became one of my most anticipated releases of 2011…
The first thing readers should understand about The Fallen Blade is that the book is an alternate history novel set in a 15th-century Venice ruled by Marco Polo’s descendants. I’m not the biggest fan of alternate history/historical fiction, but Jon Courtenay Grimwood does a tremendous job of creating a living, breathing Renaissance Venice that feels as convincing as the real thing, and is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. I particularly loved the amount of detail the author uses to establish the Millioni family and their complex political situation, which includes Duchess Alexa and Prince Alonzo vying for control of the throne, their trade routes coveted by the Mamluks, the Millioni declared as false princes by the Pope, and threats from the Germans, the Byzantines and Timur’s Mongols. Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to process all of the information that Grimwood throws at you, especially because of the manner in which he feeds readers info in tiny bits and pieces, but at the same time, it’s easy to become invested in the Renaissance Venice that the author has imagined.
Now if there is one thing negative to say about Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Venice, it’s that the setting sometimes overshadows the rest of the book. This is most evident regarding The Fallen Blade’s fantasy elements — including a vampire, werewolves (krieghund) and a witch (stregoi) — which only account for a small percentage of the novel. What’s so disappointing about the book’s fantasy elements is that Grimwood hardly spends any time at all explaining their purpose or presence, making them feel more like accessories than integral parts of the novel. I can understand the mysteriousness surrounding Tycho since most of the characters in the book don’t know what he is, including Tycho himself, but what about the krieghund or the witch A’rial? Fortunately, the fantasy stuff picks up during the novel’s climax, and I’m hopeful it’s a preview of things to come in the sequel.
Characters, meanwhile, are memorable and intriguing, led by Lady Giuletta and the silver-haired boy Tycho, while Lady Desdaio is the book’s most surprising character because she’s a supporting player who heavily factors into many of the novel’s most important moments. Characterization in The Fallen Blade is not particularly deep, and the characters would not be nearly as interesting if not for an unpredictable plot that forces the book’s characters through a series of engaging, life-altering circumstances. Take Lady Giuletta for example, who runs away to avoid a political marriage, becomes part of an assassination plot against the king of Cyprus, is abducted, and then falls in love with an enemy. The rest of the characters have their own issues to deal with, and seeing what drama unfolds and how they handle their situations is definitely one of the novel’s highlights.
Writing-wise, The Fallen Blade is a tale of two sides. On the one hand, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s world-building is convincing and immersive, and I was impressed by the author’s ability to manage the novel’s many different characters and subplots without losing control. On the other hand, Grimwood makes a number of questionable narrative decisions over the course of the novel. Like the uneven manner in which he shifts between viewpoints, with extended periods sometimes passing by before returning to a character — Atilo Il Mauros for instance. Or how viewpoints are provided for minor characters like Captain Roderigo and Iacopo as opposed to more important characters such as Lady Desdaio or Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland. Or the author’s decision to skip over most of Tycho’s Assassini training and the months Lady Giulietta and Prince Leopold spent together, which I felt were very significant moments in the novel that deserved a more in-depth account.
I should also point out that Grimwood’s writing style in The Fallen Blade is very reminiscent of Glen Cook’s writing style from his Instrumentalities of the Night series, including sparse prose, moments of telling instead of showing, and a noticeable level of detachment that is present in the storytelling and characterization. Personally, this wasn’t an issue for me as I’m a huge fan of Cook’s work, but for others, this could be a problem.
Overall, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s fantasy debut did not live up to my high expectations or its own immense potential. Nonetheless, The Fallen Blade is a well-written novel that features a fully realized setting, engaging characters, and a gripping story rife with complex politics and heartbreaking drama. In short, The Fallen Blade is still a very good book, and I definitely plan on being there for the second Act.
The Fallen Blade is set in an alternate version of early 15th century Venice, ruled by the Milioni family, who are descendants of Marco Polo. Jon Courtenay Grimwood offers a vividly realized fantasy setting with this not quite historically accurate but still surprisingly realistic version of “la Serenissima,” the Serene Republic of Venice. You’ll get many authentic looks at what life in this amazing city-state must have been like, from the perspectives of both the rich and the poor. As a matter of fact, readers who are unaware of the changes Grimwood has made to the actual history of Venice might mistake this for a historical novel with fantasy elements, rather than a combination of alternate history and dark fantasy. Regardless, the setting of The Fallen Blade is one of its real strengths.
It’s unfortunate that Grimwood took this intriguing starting point and overloaded it with what seems like enough material for at least another novel or two. Within the first few chapters, you’ll encounter a vampire, werewolves, assassins, competing gangs, a witch, a magician, a contested regency, a romantic rivalry, and that’s not nearly all. There’s so much going on in the first 100 or so pages of this novel that it frankly becomes too cluttered and hectic to be really enjoyable.
Unwrapping a few of the key elements: the titular Duke of the city is Marco IV, but since he is, as the saying goes, several sandwiches short of a picnic, his uncle Alonzo (brother of Marco III, the last Duke) is the official Regent, with his mother Alexa (the last Duke’s widow) pulling at least as many strings both in the city’s Council of Ten and behind the scenes. Lady Giulietta is the Duke’s cousin and about to be shipped off to Cyprus for a politically expedient marriage she is entirely unhappy with. Lady Desdaio is one of the most desired women in Venice, being both very attractive and the daughter of one of the richest men in the city. Roderigo, the captain of the Dogana, is courting her, but wouldn’t you know it, she falls for Atilo, a heathen Moor who also happens to be the leader of the Assassini, a group of assassins that function as the city’s secret enforcers. Still with us so far? Good. Now add to this mix what appears to be a revenant vampire in the form of an impossibly gorgeous young man, who arrives in Venice as a captive with only the vaguest memories of his mysterious origins, and a group of werewolves (called krieghund) who seem to be agents of a competing government. When Lady Giulietta runs away and the krieghund attack her, Atilo’s assassini are decimated trying to protect her, leaving Venice without much of its secretive security forces…
Most of these items are introduced in the first 50 or so pages of The Fallen Blade, which occasionally makes it feel like a particularly violent episode of something like The Bold and the Beautiful with added vampires and werewolves. On the one hand, there are the beautifully authentic descriptions of life in 15th century Venice, but on the other, it feels as if you simply can’t walk across the street in this city without encountering half a dozen street battles, intrigues, crimes, supernatural creatures and romantic rivalries. The story gallops along at an impossibly rapid pace, divided into many short chapters and jumping from character to character quickly. This is mirrored in the novel’s prose: Jon Courtenay Grimwood frequently uses periods instead of commas, turning sentence fragments into separate sentences, giving some paragraphs a staccato, stop-start rhythm.
If there’s just too much packed in the first third or so of The Fallen Blade, the pace fortunately slackens somewhat later on. Once you’re able to catch your breath, the network of intrigues and rivalries begins to take shape and becomes much more enjoyable to follow. Grimwood also gradually reveals more about his characters’ past, which leads to some very intriguing questions that will hopefully be dealt with in future volumes of the ASSASSINI. Most interesting of course is Tycho, the revenant vampire with vague flashback memories of his past, but both Atilo, the old leader of the diminished assassini, and Alexa, the mysterious, hidden power player in the republic’s politics, are fascinating characters.
The final parts of The Fallen Blade revert back to the hectic pace of the beginning, shifting some of the action out of Venice with an unlikely, desperate sea battle and an unfortunate deus ex machina ending, but there are also hints at hidden depths as Tycho’s past becomes more defined. The background story of this fantasy world is intriguing (and clearly covers more than just Venice) but it’s occasionally hard to spot it between everything else that’s thrown at you. Be sure to check out the “Extras” section in the back of the book for some interesting thoughts from the author about the ASSASSINI’s world.
There’s a lot more going on in The Fallen Blade than I’ve even hinted at here. For example, you don’t think we’d have an impossibly attractive, almost otherworldly young male vampire without at least some romantic tension, right? There are also some instances of shockingly gory violence and torture that may take more sensitive readers by surprise. The novel combines moments of genuine excitement and an intriguing pseudo-historical setting with many moments where it feels like there’s just too much happening at the same time. My experience with The Fallen Blade frequently swung from bewilderment to enjoyment and back, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
In fantasy nowadays, assassins are hot, and vampires are even hotter, so as surely as the night doth follow the day, a vampire assassin had to be on the way. Jon Courtenay Grimwood delivers with The Fallen Blade, book one in a series that promises to be a wild, improbable adventure in Renaissance Europe and possibly beyond. The novel is far from perfect and occasionally strays into full-on pulp territory, but there’s so much happening that it’s hard not to be entertained.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini Trilogy. You can enjoy this intricate historical and political fantasy with its nuanced, layered characters on its own, or you can follow the Shakespearean references that glint throughout the work like a silver thread in a tapestry. The choice is yours.
It could be argued that The Fallen Blade doesn’t need any more intrigue, even if it is Shakespearean. Grimwood set his story in Venice at the beginning of the 15th century; perhaps the most politically complex city-state in a complex, turbulent era. Besides internal political struggles that are labyrinthine, elegant and cruel, Venice also has to fend off hungry invaders and outsiders from everywhere. Alliances are as evanescent as morning mist, loyalty is fleeting and honor a dangerous luxury. Add magic to this bubbling cauldron and the whole mixture ignites, part fireworks and part firestorm.
The first character we meet is Tycho, who awakens in the secret hold of a Mamluk ship, shackled in silver, his memory in tatters. When Venetian customs agents come aboard, he escapes, nearly drowning in the attempt. He makes a psychic connection with Duchess Alexa, who rules Venice as Co-regent with her brother-in-law, the brutal Duke Alonso. Alonso and Alexa conspire against each other, using every weapon they can, while working together to keep the external enemies of Venice weak and distracted.
Tycho doesn’t eat. He can sense other people’s thoughts and see in the dark, but the sun, like silver, burns him. His reflexes are far faster than those of a mortal, and he hungers for human blood. His impulses and reactions are not human, although he does form an attachment to the beggar children who find him washed up on the side of a canal, and the Lady Giulietta, Duchess Alexa’s niece.
Atilo, the Blade of Venice, serves both the Duke and Duchess as the city’s master of assassins. Atilo is a Moor, not a native of Venice, who has caused resentment and jealousy among many of the nobles by his rise, and because of liaison with Desdaio, the pretty daughter of the richest man in the city. Three months before Tycho was discovered, Atilo lost nearly all his assassini in a battle with werewolf soldiers. When he sees Tycho in action, he enslaves him, intending to teach him the arts of the assassin. He sees Tycho as his successor, but it is clear that Tycho has no loyalty toward him.
The relationship between Atilo and Desdaio is the least satisfying one in the book. It is clear that Desdaio loves Atilo, although it’s hard to see why. Atilo says he loves her, and behaves with the predictable jealousy required of his character, but he has not married her and ignores her through most of the book. Desdaio is kind-hearted, and, in a city where the most common coin for truth is death, courageously honest. She is intrigued by Tycho but loyal to Atilo. At the end of Book One, their story is incomplete. Will it end as Othello does, or will Grimwood surprise us?
Atilo and Desdaio are only one story in this elaborate saga. The reader learns more of Tycho’s history through flashbacks and bits of the story he tells to others. Part of that story seems to be a brutal but human existence in a Viking-settled colony in the new world, but it is clear that Tycho is not human.
Grimwood is remarkably un-sentimental about his characters. Everyone has a point of view and a motivation, and no one — well, almost no one — is purely good or purely evil. Cruel and vicious things are done to characters we like and by characters we like. Giulietta’s story, which is poised to be a powerful one, only gets started in this book, with much of her development happening off-stage. Early in the book, Giulietta was the victim of her Uncle Alonzo’s magic. Something terrible was done to her, something she can’t talk about — literally cannot talk about, because she is under a spell. How will the resolution of her situation intersect with Tycho’s?
For a long book that is only the first third of a story, it still seems that some areas get short shrift. Giulietta’s relationship with another character, a relationship that seems important, is not shown developing at all. It’s hard for me to tell if this is really a problem until the whole story has unfolded.
Near the end, in a scene that seems rushed, Tycho confronts a Mamluk captain who tells him how he came to be shackled in the hold of the Mamluk ship. Tycho finds out his original purpose — to be a weapon — and his original target.
Grimwood is a writer whose plots I never can predict. He has a very different view of the world than I do, and I turn each page captivated and perplexed, wondering what these people are going to do next. It does seem that Tycho, now freed from slavery, will become the master of assassins, yet Grimwood’s Venice is not a city that can be trusted. Magic enchants, people lie and shadows can kill. Vengeance and plots percolate for generations. People make bad choices for good reasons, and live to regret them. The watery island city holds ghosts and magic, secrets and darkness. Prospero’s library will not be dukedom large enough for this elaborate, sprawling tale.
The Assassini — (2011-2013) Publisher: In the depths of night, customs officers board a galley in a harbor and overpower its guards. In the hold they find oil and silver, and a naked boy chained to the bulkhead. Stunningly beautiful but half-starved, the boy has no name. The officers break the boy’s chains to rescue him, but he escapes… Venice is at the height of its power. In theory Duke Marco commands. But Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. They command the seas, tax the colonies, and, like those in power before them, fear assassins better than their own… In a side chapel, Marco’s fifteen-year old cousin prays for deliverance from her forced marriage. It is her bad fortune to be there when Mamluk pirates break in to steal a chalice, but it is the Mamluks’ good luck — they kidnap her… In the gardens beside the chapel, Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, prepares to kill his latest victim. Having cut the man’s throat, he turns back, having heard a noise, and finds a boy crouched over the dying man, drinking blood from the wound. The speed with which the boy dodges a dagger and scales a wall stuns Atilo. And the assassin knows he has to find the boy… Not to kill him, but because he’s finally found what he thought he would never find. Someone fit to be his apprentice…
This one’s coming out on audio, too. I may give it a try because I like historical fantasy and the setting of Renaissance Venice is appealing.
Great review, Stefan, and funny too. I’m still sorely tempted to try the book, though. ;)
Me too. I like Renaissance settings, but I am sure I’ll feel the same way about the busy-ness. The setting would have to overcome that.
Please do, comes with map and cast list and not *really* that complicated ;)
Personality Psychology in September or October 2012.