ACT ONE OF THE ASSASSINI
A CONFUSED ALTERNATE HISTORY TALE THAT PROMISES SO MUCH, BUT DELIVERS SO LITTLE ON ACCOUNT OF ITS IDENTITY CRISIS
The Fallen Blade
(The Assassini Trilogy, Book 1)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
Date: 5th April 2012 (First Published 2011)
Having picked up the book on a whim, knowing next to nothing about its premise, ergo having no expectations going in, there is a part of me that feels almost guilty for being disappointed with The Fallen Blade. So much so that I read it twice hoping that a second reading would dispose me to viewing the book more favourably; it didn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I had never previously read anything by Jon Courtney Grimwood, though I was vaguely aware that he is a British author known principally for writing science fiction. Any assumptions I may have had about the book were based on its setting, an alternate history Venice in the early fifteenth century, as well as its status as the first instalment of a trilogy called, The Assassini; a title that called to mind the Assassin’s Creed game series.
From the outset Grimwood’s book threw some pleasant surprises my way. I began reading more or less hoping for a historical fantasy in the vein of Guy Gavriel Kay, so the very early inclusion of werewolves into the mix was completely unexpected; elevating my hopes for the remainder of the story. Regrettably, The Fallen Blade, didn’t come close to meeting those raised expectations.
The book’s principle, but by no means only failing, is that its biggest weakness is the very thing that should have been its greatest strength. Rather than adhering strictly to the well trodden high fantasy path, The Fallen Blade, appropriates elements from other genres, notably urban fantasy, paranormal fiction and horror which had the potential to add something unique to the tale of political shenanigans and Machiavellian agendas. Yet the author’s inability to bring together these various constituents to construct a coherent, engaging narrative only served to harm the story. This is further exacerbated by these borrowed elements being so underdeveloped that they merely serve as window dressing.
It’s such a pity that the supernatural and horror elements are not nearly as integral to the story as they could have been, as it may have resulted in stronger more enjoyable story. But the novel’s shortcomings do not end there; it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Another negative to add to the list is the weakness of the world building. The alternate history setting is poorly constructed, both in conception and execution. The historical alterations within the story’s time-line are not believable; the ruling family of Venice, for example, are the descendants of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan (by way of one of his daughters). But such a complaint on my part is obviously subjective. What really hampers the world building most is that Grimwood’s descriptions of the setting are so lacking in detail, to the extent that it never truly feels as though events are unfolding in the Mediterranean region during the early fifteenth century.
The characterisation doesn’t fair that much better. The lack of any meaningful development meant that none of the characters really came to life. Which is a pity because one or two of them are potentially very interesting. But the notable lack of depth makes them considerably less memorable. Not to mention that two of the central characters are, to my mind, at least, irredeemably unlikeable. Looking first at, Tycho, who is ostensibly the protagonist of the book, when he is first introduced as a prisoner chained up below deck of a ship, he is instantly intriguing. A teenage boy of unknown origins, unable to retain his memories for longer than a few hours at a time, with an aversion to sunlight that hurts his eyes and burns his skin, plus a hunger he doesn’t understand.
Sadly, Tycho, never truly develops into the character he had the potential to become. The author doesn’t provide enough insight into the character which makes Tycho’s story hard to invest in or care about. And making it harder still is his penchant for being aggressive and violent towards females, which predisposed me to disliking him; and there was no coming back from that. This is even more true for the second unlikeable character in question, Atilo, a thinly veiled Othello knock-off.
As was the case with Tycho, when Atilo is initially introduced he is immediately a very interesting character, with a great backstory too. A Moorish military leader forced to renounce his religion, homeland and family, then made to pledge allegiance to Venice, and serve Venetian royalty as the head of a secret society of Assassins. Regrettably, it quickly becomes apparent that Atilo isn’t a particularly nice person. Perhaps that is to be expected of someone who is a killer. But while I could accept that a certain amount of ruthlessness is required of an assassin, his casual and almost habitual hitting of women and children was something I was not prepared to overlook. Sure, you could make the argument that in the fifteenth century it was probably the norm for men to beat women and children to “keep them in line” and “show them who’s the boss”. However, I would have appreciated a little less realism; this is a fantasy novel, after all. And I have no time or respect for men who are abusive and violent towards women and children, either in real life or in fiction.
The Fallen Blade has numerous problems, and while not necessarily the culprit for these multiple flaws, the author’s writing makes all the failings of the novel all the more glaring. There is such an abruptness to the prose that it’s little wonder that so many aspects of the novel are so shallow and underdeveloped. Little effort was expended to flesh things out, whether it be the characters or the setting; presumably this was motivated by a desire to make the plot move even faster. All too frequently chapters would end in just three or four pages (sometimes less), as Grimwood haphazardly jumped from one plot thread to another, one character to another.
If you are wondering why I haven’t actually touched upon the book’s plot, it’s because, frankly, it is an incoherent mess of multiple storylines and sub-plots with too many point of view characters. I suspect this lack of focus could have been alleviated to some degree if the page count was doubled. As it is, the author tries to cram too much into the story, in too few pages.
In conclusion, The Fallen Blade, is a novel with a premise that promised a lot more than the author was able to deliver. Being the first instalment of a trilogy, it does little to incentivise the reading of the sequels; I’m certainly in no hurry to do so. As I’m not familiar with Grimwood’s science fiction writing, I can’t really say whether this failing is because the fantasy genre is not his forte, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that had Jacqueline Carey been given this book’s premise to work with, she would surely have crafted a masterful, five-star, riveting novel.
This review was written several months ago, and reading it now I cringe at how poorly written it is. Hopefully you’ll notice an improvement in quality once I start posting more recently produced reviews in the coming days and weeks.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.