The cover says, ‘THE AGE OF KINGS IS DEAD…AND I HAVE KILLED IT,’ which is quite a statement to make. And to be fair it’s not an understatement. Field Marshal Tamas’s coup in of the nation of Adro, one of the Nine kingdoms, results in the death of the monarch and the layer of aristocrat. But it also results in the death of his royal kabal of Privileged, magic users who are there to keep the King safe (they didn’t do a good job on this occassion). Though they aren’t the only magic users there are lesser users like powder mages and those with a knack.
The trouble is that it’s the powder mages, who are mostly military and of whom Tamas is one, may have saved Adro from being sold out to their neighbours, but the end of the Age of Kings causes its own problems.
Let’s get this out of the way. I had a great time reading this book. I’m having a really good run of varied reading; Equations of Life, Poison, The Panopticon, The City of Silk and Steel, The Universe of Alex Woods and I’m happy to add Promise of Blood to the list.
What’s different? Guns and magic! I honestly didn’t think I’d get excited about someone else’s gun fetish but McClellan’s narration drew me in. He has structured his story in such a way that it is compelling from the opening chapter. He weaves three main threads; an investigation each of the kabal’s dying words, his son’s hunt for a rogue privileged and Tama’s own struggles in powers. But even those seeds grow and each of their roles change as the story unfolds.
I’m aware that one person’s fresh voice is another’s cliché but I’m also aware that my tolerance for certain epic fantasy stories is low so to be drawn in and excited by a fantasy novel is a refreshing thing. McClellan really does have a skilled storytellers eye for lingering in the right places for the right time before looking elsewhere. It’s a dangerous thing to do to leave one thread just as it’s in full swing only to leap to another and invariably you think you’d like to keep going rather than leave it.
I never felt that. I did think that a couple of times the leaps didn’t flow from one moment in one thread to the same or future moment but instead they felt they were going backwards (I could be wrong). But even so the whole thing held together. Each thread was worthy of the attention it got and each was packed with twists and turns. I enjoyed each of them equally for different reasons. The treat that Tama’s faces leading a country, the underside met by his investigator and the action that his son provides hunting.
All the characters are multifaceted. McClellan is good with giving characters something worthwhile to do. They serve the story. Some more than others obviously but even the minor characters are interesting for example a maid we meet at the start plays an important role at several key moments which are unbeknown to her moments before they happen.
As I was reading I didn’t have any major problems with portrayal of any of the characters apart from a niggle to do with the ’slave-girl’ Ka-poel. She’s a mute, a ‘savage’ and her magic is not understood by those around her. She accompanies Tamas’s son on his missions and when she does she looks after him, mostly via magic. I only had the niggle because of something that happens later on.
McClellan shows women in various roles and strata of society but it does have an old school flavour to it. The society is a conservative one. It’s a book about the men (thanks Neil) and their fights and struggles dominate, though as I said the maid’s story is a powerful in minor thread and could well turn into something else but even that it is about a male character.
So while I didn’t have any issues while reading it on reflection it could and probably should have taken more risks to displace the social model it based itself on. The women have a valuable role in the story but not in their own society, at least that their power isn’t their own as they facilitate the males at each and every turn.
Where does this leave me? I have a quandary. If I’d read and moved on then I’d have been left with feeling I’d enjoyed an amazing book. And I still feel like that. But the process of reviewing it has made me consider other aspects that I wouldn’t have lingered on. I would have missed the conservative nature of the backdrop. That’s the privilege of being a male reader I guess.
So, I can’t ignore that aspect but neither can I berate it for sticking to a historically social norm. I can wonder why it wasn’t more daring. I can be honest and say that I think that this is a book written for men. And most male readers are going to enjoy the hell out of it without batting an eyelid.
As for me I’m going to read the next one. I’m hoping that McClellan brings to it all his skill as a storyteller. I’m invested in the plight of the people of Adro. I want to know the consequences of Tama’s actions. I want to see what the shocking end of this one means in the bigger picture. But I also hope that there is time for McClellan to tweak his treatment of his female characters. I’m not sure how he’d be able to do it as he’s set the whole world up to be male dominant but there are still opportunities for giving them strength rather than weakness and goals that unrelated to those of the male characters.
This is a traditional feeling story. It’s amazingly well constructed. Its aim isn’t to elevate the role of women in society, so leaves to others. But it does explore the law of unexpected consequences. Its premise feels fresh. It’s exploring an idea about what happens when gods you don’t think are real actually are. It also explores the diminishing of power over time. The role of the church and it’s statements vs it’s actions. It explores truth and lies. Plus it has guns and magic and a passion for that which is infectious.
And with all that said would I recommend this book?
Oh yes, but with all the caveats above.