18 year old Lucien de Fontein is an Orfano - a deformed orphan left outside Demesne (a huge castle that houses the ruling families of Landfall) and made a ward of the king (who has not been seen for years and who lets his majordomo rule in his stead). Since the age of 8, Lucien has been taught and tested every year, ready to assume a position of responsibility within the Demesne. But Lucian knows that something's rotten within the state of Landfall and he's acquired a number of enemies, the most dangerous of which is Superiore Giancarlo who'll be running Lucien's last test and who's just looking for an excuse to do him real harm ...
Den Patrick's fantasy novel is a nicely written but slim tale of intrigue and discrimination in a claustrophobic castle where everyone is subject to the scrutiny and malice of their neighbours. The novel's chapters alternate between Lucien's final testing and its aftereffects and an account of his childhood, which gives the story an episodic feel. My main issue is that for someone highly educated and politically aware, Lucien charges headlong into trap after trap, reacting to events rather than driving them forward. Worse is the fact that he's been aware for 4 years that something bad is happening to Landfall's women and yet does absolutely nothing until the plot requires him to, which made it difficult for me to care about him. This is a shame because Patrick keeps the action moving and I enjoyed the Medieval Italian influences to his fantasy world, however while the book sets up a sequel I'm not that interested in reading on - although I would check out Patrick's other books.
My favourite character in the book is actually the mysterious Anea, who always wears a veil in public and who communicates by writing notes to be read out by others. Intelligent and cautious, she's the only character who really calls Lucien on his stupidity and who successfully navigates the dangers of the court. I would have preferred more scenes with her in the book than the under-developed Rafella, who's signalled as a love interest far too early and whose attraction to the younger, brash Lucien was not something I really understood.
Ultimately, while this novel didn't really do it for me I enjoyed Patrick's writing style enough to want to read his other work - just not this series.
Review copy from publisher.
on 7 May 2015
On a mysterious island at some unspecified time, what appears to be a society of stranded Italian Renaissance nobles, their servants, knights and tutors engage in complex courtships and intrigues under the watchful eyes of an enigmatic cowled Majordomo and a king who has not been seen for some time. What makes the place particularly uncanny is the presence of the Orfani, strangely disfigured young people whose origins are unknown. At first these effects, such as black fingernails, seem quite minor, while others like the silence of the mysterious, veiled Anea seem part of her enigmatic beauty. Gradually, however, more details are revealed, some genuinely shocking.
Despite their outward differences, the Orfani enjoy high status in the elaborate ruling citadel of Demesne. There aren’t that many of them and none of them are particularly old, which both hints at the conspiracy afoot and also puts the novel in the enviable position of being enjoyed by young adult and older readers as well. The intrigues are detailed and visceral while the fast pace of the book keeps things going despite the device of placing alternate chapters in the past, which while avoiding exposition at the outset can be disjointing.
The protagonist, spirited teenager Lucien, is on the receiving end of some nastily effective bullying which appears to be part of a plot to promote his yobbish rival Golia to a position of power that feels like bad news for the rest of the island. These scenes are very effective and Lucien’s response to them is satisfying. He does seem supernaturally confident but then he is not a normal young man. In other areas he struggles as we all do and what the book does very well is show that his success is the result not only of his own determination but that of the people close to him.
The female characters are particularly strong; not only Anea but the lovely Rafaela, the gentle but no-nonsense cook and even supporting characters like the scheming Lady Prospero and her savvy daughter Stephania. Other reviewers have mentioned ‘Gormenghast’ but lady Prospero’s name brings to mind another influence, ‘The Tempest’. This novel captures the same sense of a theatrical, mysterious island with its stranded characters struggling with plots both political and apparently supernatural. The result is eerily sexy.
With this being Den’s first full length novel (his other three releases being the Art of War Manuals for Dwarves, Elves and Orcs) I was really interested to see what he’d bring to the fore and whilst this had aspects of Jon Courtenay Grimwoods Assassini trilogy I found that it stood out upon its own two feet as we’re thrust into a strange new fantasy world that seeks to bring the readers a touch of believable history that will transport you with ease into Den’s world.
The book features a very interesting protagonist who has his illusions thrust to one side as he seeks to find his place with cracking action sequences, some wonderful turns of phrase and all round allows the reader to explore the world at their leisure. Back this up with a solid supporting cast and a few twists as the authors sleight of hand plays away in the background all round generates a tale that left me hanging for more. Great stuff.
on 26 March 2016
This is a funny book to be reading today. I purchased it a year ago at Eastercon and I actually met Den Patrick the year before at Worldcon, and here I am sitting out Manunicon, the 2016 Eastercon, and catching up on some reading.
So a long awaited review.
First impressions. I have to say from the start I have been in love with this book and its amazing cover. What is there not to like in the knee-high leather boots, tail-coat and long slender porcelain sword, so from looks alone this is a book that I like coming back to.
This is a fantasy tale set against a medieval Italian backdrop, four great houses House Fontein, Contadino, Erudito and Prospero, satellites all to an all powerful, yet unseen king, and servants to the ‘orfani’ of Demesne. Orfani who are abandoned children born with a variety of deformities, sometimes special gifts and a strange crystal blue blood; you would have thought such children would be left to die, but no these are they cherished and taught by each of the houses in turn, until they come of age, and then they choose the house to which they will belong. and the chapters have dates starting in
We meet Lucien on his 18th birthday, and his test day, as he prepares to face the final ordeal that will see him finish his training, and give him some freedom, however unexpectantly the ordeal he faces is to fight untrained farmers, to the death.
“I’m a student of the sword, not an executioner,” Lucien protests; and so the tale begins. Over the next 200 pages, Dan Patrick expertly tells Lucien’s story jumping back and forward through the years of his life exposing how Lucien has become the man he is, and expertly outlining the predicament he now faces. The story is well told and keeps you gripped as you jump from the awkward eight-year-boy hiding among the gargoyles of the medieval palace, to the eighteen-year-old sword in hand fighting a deadly adversary across those same black roof tiles.
I liked the book very much indeed, the fight scenes were extremely detailed and well told. I liked the colour of the medieval Italian world and wished only there had been a quick guide to the Italian swearwords the characters use throughout. Porca miseria – which I can assume means miserable pig, and figlio di puttana – which I will leave to Google translate or your own imagination.
on 3 May 2015
Lucien de Fontein wants for nothing. He has an education, a roof over his head and is well fed, healthy and safe. The only thing he’s missing, is hope. Lucien is an Orfano, a child born with a deformity. The Orfano are feted by the noble houses and the price for Lucien’s education is the expectations placed on him. Because the Orfano are hated as much as they are courted and Lucien is hated most of all…
Lucien, even in his darkest moments, exudes confidence and so does the book he swaggers, sprints, bluffs and fights his way through. Much like Tom Fletcher’s Gleam, there’s a sense of vast amounts of story built into the foundations of this one. Landfall, and the castle, are both fascinating places and Den uses the twinned class structures of the staff and the Orfano to both heighten the tension and bring the characters into focus. This is a world that’s largely self-sustaining and has grown around the Orfano. You can almost see how it was originally intended to protect them but the older Lucien gets, the more it becomes apparent how much of a lie that is. Starting on the worst day of Lucien’s life the novel’s main plot sprints and never slows down but is cleverly interspersed with flashbacks to Lucien’s annual tests. Through those we get a sense not only of how he’s changing but how the people who oppose him aren’t. Something is very, very wrong in Landfall and as Lucien realizes that, he also realizes just how deep the corruption goes. Every line is important, every flashback serves a purpose and each scene arms Lucien for what’s coming. In that way, Den not only makes sure Lucien is likable and familiar but also constantly raises the stakes. The simple fact Lucien’s still alive means he’s a threat and the moment he realizes that is the moment he becomes truly dangerous.
Because make no mistake, Lucien is very dangerous both to the people oppressing the Orfano and to the status quo of Landfall. The first because he’s intelligent, and kind, enough to see what’s really going on and the second because of Rafaela. A member of the serving staff, Rafaela is assigned to Lucien at a young age and the pair of them grow up together. She’s every inch his equal; perceptive, quick-witted, loyal and tough. But he’s a boy, and therefore an idiot, and it takes a while for him to figure stuff out. Lucien’s relationships are where Den really excels. Rafaela, Lucien’s guardian and teacher Virmyre and younger Orfano Anea and Dino are all immensely likable, sympathetic characters who we find out a good deal about. All of them are survivors, some more reluctantly than others. They’re also all outcasts for different reasons and that common thread of isolation binds them together into an eccentric, and fiercely loyal family unit. You like all of them, and without any of them, Lucien would be doomed several times over. This is very far from a standard ‘lone hero’ fantasy novel and that’s one of its biggest strengths.
Another is the unique approach Den takes to the culture of Landfall. The language, culture and outlook are all Italian-influenced and that helps immensely with the more eccentric parts of the world. You’re given an automatic linguistic and cultural grounding which means you come up to speed far faster than you would with other books. It also gives Den a chance to up end your expectations, which he does more than once. After all, as Lucien finds out, the easiest way to win a fight is to surprise your opponent.
Intelligent, funny, surprising fantasy, The Boy With The Porcelain Blade is as elegant, well-trained and heroic as Lucien wants to be. Huge fun and another breath of fresh air for British fantasy.
on 2 April 2014
This book was not what I was expecting from the blurb and opening chapter. It starts at a critical point in the main character Lucien's life, as he faces the final test that will complete his training as a soldier. It goes horribly wrong, and Lucien is soon exiled from the city. Demesne is a city split into elite houses, each with a speciality, ruled by a king no one has seen for decades. Lucien is one of the 'Orfani', treated to an exceptional education & living in luxury, but separated by some kind of abnormality - in Lucien's case, he has black fingernails & no ears.
The book alternates from chapter to chapter between the present where he deals with the consequences of exile, and the past where we learn more about him, from when he was a small child gradually getting closer to the present. While some of these flashbacks were interesting, I did find myself skimming through several of them, wanting to get back to the excitement of the present and the maturity of 18 year old Lucien rather than the more childish version in the other chapters.
I felt like it took until the second half of the book for the story to start living up to the promise of the first couple of chapters, with the intrigue and the challenge of a system finally coming out. That's where it really started to pick up for me and I felt far more engaged. Lucien's journey across the city, through the creepy sanatoria, the oubliette, and onwards, trying to rescue & save his friend before she is co-opted in to another gruesome experiment, kept me on the edge of my seat.
The other thing worth commenting on is that this is quite a creepy story. I'd almost class it as horror rather than fantasy. There are a lot of spiders, so I found myself picking my feet up from the floor while I read some parts! If I'd been watching this on tv, there are a lot of places where I think I would have been peeking around a cushion at the screen.
While it takes a little while to get to reach the potential set up by the first chapter and the blurb, 'The Boy With The Porcelain Blade' is a gripping fantasy story which will keep you up past your bedtime and probably sleeping with the light on. I look forward to the second book in the trilogy.
Overall, I give The Boy With The Porcelain Blade 7/10.
[A copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Originally posted on my book blog, link in my profile.]
on 5 July 2015
I'm really happy to have discovered Den Patrick's Erebus Sequence books. This first book sets up the world of Landfall through the moody gaze of a young, malformed hero called Lucien who roams as an outsider through the dark corners of Demesne, an Italian-esque castle full of mysteries and court intrigues. The story unfolds beautifully as the secrets of Demense's dark history become clear and Lucien is forced to confront the source of this horror and his own origins.
I'm halfway through the second book in the series - "The Boy Who Wept Blood" and I came back to review this first book because it has set-up the second so well. The setting itself is one of the strong characters in these books; fans of intricate fantasy worlds will love Landfall. I particularly love how the world's mysteries are slowly revealed at little more in each book. I know the 3rd is due out later this year and I can't wait to see how he brings the many strands of narrative together. I can see these books becoming cult classics with their wonderful blend of horror and fantasy.
You can almost hear the Trent Resnor/Atticus Ross soundtrack that will come when they make these books into movies.
The main narrative follows Lucien as he finally confronts enemies who have been hounding him for his entire life. Lucien’s journey from early childhood to adulthood has been fraught with danger. The Orfano, orphans, live a privileged existence, but there are those who would gladly see Lucien and the rest of his kind removed. Interspersed with the main action, alternating chapter’s flashback to key events during Lucien’s formative years. You quickly get insight into the trials and tribulations that all the Orfano face on a daily basis.
I liked Lucien, he’s a fascinating character. Driven by an inquisitive nature, he can’t help but get caught up in all manner of scrapes. He’s lived his entire life as an outsider, ostracised by many, and the loneliness that permeates his character also generates a grim determination within. He longs to find a place where he can fit in, where he will be accepted as he is. His inner strength is almost palpable and he needs to draw upon it when he comes to the realisation that there is something very wrong at the core of Landfall.
Every good protagonist needs an arch-nemesis, and for Lucien that adversary is the Majordomo. Portrayed as the living embodiment of the word secretive, he appears and disappears without warning. There is something delightfully sinister about his character and all his furtive actions. I’m sure we can all agree anyone who hides their appearance under heavy robes is very probably up to know good and needs keeping an eye on. The relationship between these two is like a never ending game of chess. Lucien becomes almost entirely consumed with trying to second guess what his opponent’s next move will be. I’d be lying if said I didn’t want to discover more about the Majordomo’s origins. Revelations that are uncovered later in the plot deliver just as many additional questions as they do answers.
Patrick’s writing deftly captures all the small, seemingly insignificant, details of Landfall and its myriad inhabitants with an expert eye. From the evocative architecture of the city to the opulent design of Lucien and the other Orfano’s outfits. You can’t beat a good frock coat or a cravat. There is a wonderful sense of completeness about it all. Elements like this are a nice referential nod to the novel’s faux Venetian setting. It’s only when you step back, and look at everything as a whole, that you can properly appreciate that these little details are actually all incredibly important.
The best part? The verbal and mental sparring going on between all the different characters, sometimes in jest while in other moments deadly serious. Under the thin veneer of civility and manners that exists in this society there are a whole host of dark plots and schemes just waiting to be uncovered. At first glance a character can appear charming, well-educated and without malice but it turns out they’d happily stab you in the neck as soon as look at you. I love the thought that I could re-read conversations in this book and with the experience of hindsight whole new interpretations could be taken from what is said. The thing to remember? It’s not just a blade but also a choice word that can cause damage in Landfall.
My only minor quibble, and assure you it is very minor, is that in certain respects it does feel a little like this novel is just an introduction to something much larger. Thinking about it that’s not really a bad thing I suppose. I was just little disappointed that there wasn’t more. It feels like the plot has only just begun. By books end Lucien’s character is certainly firmly established, I hope that future novels in The Erebus Sequence manage that same level of detail for the some of the others.
As an aside, and in a weird moment of synchronicity, I found myself reading a big chunk of this novel while listening to the Assassin’s Creed IV soundtrack. It honestly couldn’t have fitted the mood of the writing better. It’s a suitably rousing album and is a perfect counterpoint to the tensions of Lucien’s story. The Boy with the Porcelain Blade most definitely has a swashbuckling vibe running all the way through it, so it’s hardly a surprise. As I read on, I was reminded of the best from historic action and adventure, from The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo to the gothic grandeur of Gormenghast. Patrick manages the trickiest of tasks, he tips a reverential nod to all these classics but also manages to craft something that is uniquely his own.
Overall, I’ll happily admit that I’m impressed with this debut. There is plenty of action, whole heaps of delicious intrigue and a couple of subtle suggestions that there is something much larger afoot. I have my suspicions about one or two of those elements, and I look forward to finding out if I’m thinking along the right lines or not. I’d heard nothing but good buzz surrounding this book before reading and now that I have, I find I’m inclined to agree.
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is published by Gollancz and available from 20th March 2014. If you enjoy your buckle being swashed with a healthy side order of conspiratorial plotting this could well be the book for you.
on 21 March 2014
I enjoy darkness in fantasy as much as the next person. Whether it's grimdark, or a gothic flavour, or simply on account of how nasty some of the characters are. WithThe Boy With The Porcelain Blade, we get a little bit of all of that - but the best part, for me, is that all the dark is balanced with light, and in the best way possible.
This book has style (bucketloads of it), and it has substance - and it marries the two wonderfully. Take the style, first of all. Tom Pollock has called it "Locke Lamora meets Gormenghast", and I will happily attest to the fact that he is so very not wrong. The majority of this story takes place in a freaking massive castle, with gargoyles on the rooftops and dungeons and oubliettes down below that have all kinds of scary stories whispered about them. It's dark. In fact it's downright creepy in plenty of ways - but there's also a ray of light, in some way, shape or form, when it's needed most. The light might be shining through glass that's a bit grubby, as it were, but it's there - thanks to the main cast of characters.
Lucien de Fontein is one of the Orfano, a boy barely accepted and relentlessly tormented by the society of Demesne, where he grows up. He has a deformity, as all of the Orfano do - he lacks ears. His hearing is apparently just fine; he simply suffers in appearance. And, as you might guess, 'polite society' doesn't look kindly upon that sort of thing. So, Lucien becomes a very bitter, angry young man - but one determined to better himself, to earn a place in the House of his choice within Demesne through a series of tests. It's these tests that introduce us to Lucien, and ... Well. Let's just say they don't go very well for him.
It's at this point that the story begins to shift back and forth in time, dovetailing Lucien's present-day trials with significant events in his past, bringing the two tales closer and closer together until the climactic point is reached. It's also here that the comparison to Locke Lamora rings true. As someone who loves those books, this is pretty high praise, but it has to be said that this book is a far cry from a mere pretender.
It's in the substance, more than just the style, that Den Patrick distinguishes himself here. The origins of the Orfano and their supposed purpose in society (none of which I'll detail here, because spoilers) lend a lot to that creepy, creepy darkness I mentioned before. It's all delightfully gothic, but more than this, it's the bonds between Lucien and his fellow Orfano that give the story its depth and let you empathise with their plight. Their sufferance of their individual deformities (each one seemingly more severe and disturbing than the last, from Dino, the youngest of them with his poison spines, to Anea, who wears a veil for a shudder-inducingly good reason...) eventually brings them together, a small band of have-nots who refuse to be beaten down by their circumstances. It's the crafty way they use their heads to wriggle out of tough spots (sometimes by the skin of their teeth) rather than merely fighting their way out that let me really enjoy this story, and by the time the final confrontation came along I was quite firmly on Team Lucien. Though I don't mind telling you, there was a lot of nail-biting along the way...
In keeping with that brains-over-brawn theme, while there's plenty of peril involved in the climax, it's the aftermath that makes it. It was there that I really cheered my team on, and of course it's there that the (very simple, yet very sly and very intriguing) setup for the second book takes place. I, for one, can't wait to see what might happen next.
To sum up, this is a beautifully written book with a wonderfully twisty, turny plot, fascinating characters (some I loved, some I thoroughly despised) and an ending that, while it might lack a dramatic cliffhanger, still managed to leave me happily awaiting a second book.
Well played, Mr Patrick. Well played.
on 7 August 2014
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is a great first novel for a promising new author.
The story is set predominantly in the Castle of Demesne on the Island of Landfall. Here the nobility and ruling families preside over the land showing little interest of the world outside their own walls. Instead the political machinations and power struggle of the families has become all that they are concerned with. Their ruler, the enigmatic and absent King, leaves the families alone, allowing his proxy, the mysterious Majordomo, to be the deliverer of his will.
Enter the Orfani, children who are given a special and privileged place in society. Without families of their own, they each vie for the acceptance and adoption of one of the great families. Lucien is one such Orfani, training hard to join House Fontein when he is old enough. He is brash and inquisitive and fully capable of making allies and enemies in equal measure. His place in the world seems to be shaping up to be more than he had imagined. What does the Majordomo have in mind for him? Why are women disappearing? And what is the dark secret behind the Orfani?
A great mystery and a well paced narrative. The book hops from flashback to present day nicely with all the revelations in either time period nestling neatly with each other to drive the story forward. The somewhat confined locale allows the reader to become more immersed in the world of Demesne and really get to know the castle almost as another character. The book is easily read as a standalone but with enough world building to leave me quite keen for the next chapter in the sequence.
I recently bought a Kindle and, although I had already purchased the book in hardback, I decided to get the Kindle version so that I could read it on holiday. I have to say that I had no problems with the ebook what so ever so it would appear that the problems that other reviewers have stated, have been resolved.