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Thrilling opening to an imaginative new fantasy series
on 4 April 2013
It's refreshing to see a new fantasy series take the time to establish a firm foundation for its setting without having to rely on the old conventions of the genre. Promise of Blood, the first in the Powder Mage trilogy, is appropriately epic in its scale and ambition, not just depicting the vast power struggles of huge forces, sorcerers and demons fulfilling some ancient prophesy, but also taking into account the social and economic cost of the upheaval on the ordinary citizen when Field Marshal and Powder Mage Tamas overthrows the corrupt reign of King Manhouch in the kingdom of Adro. That's only just beginning of Tamas's troubles, but if the rest of this series remains as gritty and as thrilling as the set-up alone it will be one of the best new fantasy works for a long time. And there is indeed every sign that the series has a lot more to offer.
Having overthrown the King and publicly executed the nobility right at the outset of the first book, the real substance of Promise of Blood then is to be found in the disorder that follows in the wake of the revolution. Tamas has to quell the civil unrest that follows, sweep up pockets of royalist resistance, account for the kingdom's debts and put the economic house into order (not least of which is finding a way to pay his soldiers), but the unrest also places Adro in a dangerous position with its neighbours in Kez only waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of the instability. McClellan does well to cover all these angles though a number of characters who all provide a different perspective on the aftermath. There's Olem, Tamas's bodyguard; Adamat, an investigator he has hired to look into a conspirator in the ranks; Nila, a former maid of the royal family who is hired to work in the camp; and Taniel, the son of Tamas, another powder mage who is charged with facing down the immediate and most dangerous threat from Kez and rival sorcerers with tremendous powers known as Privileged.
This perspective covers all the angles and combines to build up an extensive picture of the scale of the post-revolution situation, gradually revealing aspects of the history and mythology of the Nine Kingdoms, establishing social background and context, and doing it all in a realistic, thrilling and suspenseful manner that has none of the usual tedium of lengthy exposition of myths and legends. That's all very well being super-realistic and convincing, but what about the fantasy elements? Well, Promise of Blood's flintlock fantasy doesn't disappoint either, creating a world with Powder Mages - who use gunpowder like cocaine, enhancing their ability to control its explosive force and direction - as well as sorcerers with differing levels of gifts from the powerful Privileged to the handy Knacks. There are also a few other powers that are less easily defined but which come into play to tremendous effect later in this first book.
Promise of Blood is just the opening salvo then, one that establishes the world and the context of the Powder Mage trilogy, and it's one that at the moment that doesn't appear to extend much beyond the familiar subject of warring kingdoms. The devil however (and indeed the gods) is in the detail, in the realistic attention paid to the characters and the situation, and in the gradual revelation of what is at stake (and it's much bigger than you would initially think). Right from the first page there is never a dull moment, and you can feel the pressure on Tamas from every angle and sense the growing danger and scale of the book's ambition develop on every single page, McClellan's organisation and direct writing creating an incredible sense of pace and tension that builds up to a suitably impressive conclusion. This alone is an incredible debut but what it opens up for the books ahead is even more exciting.