I have good news and bad news about The Outcast Blade, the second book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s ACTS OF THE ASSASSINI series.
The good news is that the book is as captivating as its predecessor, The Fallen Blade. It’s a heady brew of magic, military strategy, politics, mystery, betrayal and love. Grimwood’s descriptions of Venice are grounded rather than lyrical, creating a living city that is gritty and fantastical, beautiful and frightening, breathing in history and breathing out magic.
Stone steps disappearing under dark water were a common occurrence in Venice, where such runs helped adjust for tidal differences. Most of the water steps in the island city were algae-green and slippery underfoot. The steps up to the fondamenta, the stone-lined embankment at San Lazar, had been scrubbed so clean on the Prior’s orders that the chisel marks of the original mason could be seen.
Tycho, the demon hero of the books, whose blood hunger waxes with the moon, left Venice as a slave and returns a knight triumphant. Lady Giulietta, cousin to the city’s ruler, left the city as a girl and returns a widow with a child to protect. Atilo, the Blade of Venice, leader of the assassini, left the city secure in his life and his station. He returns riddled with self-doubt and jealousy, a combination that will lead to tragedy in his household.
Before they even set foot in Venice proper, there is an attempt on Giulietta’s life, which Tycho foils. Back at the royal palace, the Ca’ Ducale, Tycho and Giulietta learn that not one, but two princes have bid for Giulietta’s hand. Frederick is the illegitimate son of Emperor Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire, brother to Giulietta’s dead husband, while the Basilius of the Byzantine Empire also proffers a son. Sigismund’s claim is the stronger; Giulietta’s husband Leopold named her son Leo his heir in all things (even bestowing his werewolf-shapeshifting powers) although Leo is not of his blood. While John Palaiologos of Byzantium has the weaker claim, he has a larger navy and a powerful mage at his side. Duke Alonzo and the Duchess Alexa, the cold-warring co-Regents of the city, join forces when their city is threatened, and it is clear to them that Giulietta must marry one of the two suitors. Giulietta, of course, is interested in neither.
While the primary story here is Tycho’s, and the mystery of just what he is, Giulietta must answer some of those same questions for herself. She has always been a princess. In the first book, she was chattel, manipulated by her evil uncle Alonzo and to a lesser extent by her Aunt Alexa. In this book she becomes more of a player and less of a game piece on the political board. She is guided in this by the memory of her dead husband, who was never her lover, technically her enemy, and in fact her friend.
Leopold had told her that life in all palaces was complicated. It should be thought of as being like trying to play chess when you could only see the board in a mirror and half the pieces you did have were invisible.
In The Fallen Blade, I felt a bit cheated that Giulietta’s and Leopold’s alliance developed largely offstage. Here we see the depth of that friendship through Giulietta’s recollections, and feel her sadness. And it makes a nice change from her reminding herself that she hates Tycho, which she tells herself several times a day.
Women make up a large part of The Outcast Blade. Grimwood’s female characters are realistic and unsentimentally written. Giulietta, for instance, is strong-willed, smart, and growing braver by the day. She can be petty. She is unjustly jealous of Desdaio, the beautiful and honest heiress who loves Atilo and is Tycho’s friend. In the hands of a less sophisticated writer, Giulietta and Desdaio, each of whom longs for freedom, would recognize their common dream, dress as boys and run away to the countryside where they would create a collective of women warriors or something. Not so here. The realities of their fifteenth century world make them rivals, and Giulietta’s conflicted feelings for Tycho pull her back, time and again, from a chance for real friendship with the other woman.
The Duchess Alexa, who is the mother of the true ruler of Venice, Duke Marco IV, is another powerful character who is still hampered by her gender, her blood and her position. Alexa is not a Venetian. She is a Mongol, wed to Duke Marco III in a political marriage. Alexa is a strong witch and uses magic to protect her son, called by some Marco the Simpleton, and fend off the machinations of her murderous brother-in-law Alonzo. Marco the Simpleton is one of the most intriguing characters in the book.
The duke was so tongue-tied he began pounding his throne in anger. To Tycho it seemed studied. If not studied, then exaggerated. Everyone said the duke’s senses came and went. Tycho was beginning to wonder if they went quite as often as people said.
Three other female characters shape the events of the book. One is Rosalyn, a street child who pulled Tycho from the canal when he first came to Venice. Rosalyn died. Now she haunts one of the smaller islands, rising from a shallow grave at night to fall upon fishermen, smugglers and grave-robbers and drain their blood. A’rial, a stregoi or witch, is an important if elusive character who seems to serve Alexa, and late in the book, Tycho meets the embodiment of Venice, in a potent, mysterious encounter.
It’s not all women with babies sitting around meditating on their fates. There is plenty of action here. Tycho hunts and kills werewolves or krieghund in the Italian countryside. He duels Iacopo, Atilo’s servant and betrayer, and Grimwood tells us, “The blades were sweeps of light reflected in the flickering torches.” Being dragged away to prison, Tycho thinks about the building he is being led to:
Bitter misery coated the flagstones under his feet like slime, and pain like mould varnished the thick brick walls that climbed blindly around them. In a city of ghosts, where he’d grown used to being watched by what could not be seen, he knew even the ghosts were afraid to haunt this place.
Tycho, using his demon powers, manages a daring rescue at a state banquet, even though there’s a price on his head, and in the end faces a werewolf army and a mage whose words cut through flesh like flying shards of glass, to save the city he hates for the woman he loves.
Once or twice I felt the plot creaking under the weight of the story. I was surprised and skeptical that Giulietta would choose a rather intimate moment to show Tycho an artifact that her husband left her. The timing seemed off. At one other point, Alexa, who is scrying, has the choice of following Tycho or another character in her scrying bowl. If she continues to watch Tycho, she will find out something before it’s convenient for her to, so she opts for the other character instead. It did feel a bit contrived, but by the end of the book I didn’t care.
And now, for the bad news. The character of Tycho and his dilemma are so well developed that Grimwood has set the bar very, very high for himself. Tycho is a demon who is trying, awkwardly, to learn to be human — to be human in a city and a time that does not reward the better aspects of humanity. He is also trying to find out about himself. Was he dragged out of time into this new time and place by magic? If he is immortal or long-lived, what does that mean for him and Giulietta? Also, given the rich vein of Shakespeare running through this series, I have to worry about anyone whose girlfriend is named Giulietta.
The Outcast Blade is available as an audiobook from Brilliance Audio. I listened to the first five chapters. (Audio books are a new experience for me.) Dan John Miller read the book. He has a pleasant, mellow voice with enough authority to convey the material. Miller did an excellent job on the older male characters, like Atilo, Sigismund and the Basilius. I thought the voices of the young women were a little out of his range. It was still an enjoyable interpretation of the story.
I like how Grimwood tells the story he wants to tell and doesn’t worry about labels. This isn’t high fantasy or sword-and-sorcery (although, in some ways, it might be closest to that). It isn’t historical fantasy or military fantasy although it has the flavor of both. It’s a dammed fine story peopled with compelling characters in a world where magic is just one more tool, like politics, money, or a strong sword arm. In this world, a demon is trying to be a man, and hoping love will show him the way. The only bad news for me is that now I have to wait for Book Three.
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…