Book Review: Promise of Blood

Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage Trilogy #1)
by Brian McClellan
Fantasy
545 pages
Published April, 2013, by Orbit

“The age of kings is dead,” Field Marshal Tamas declares at the beginning of Promise of Blood, after he stages a bloody coup that brings and end to the corrupt and inept monarchy that enriched itself while allowing the common people to starve. But while Tamas’s intentions are noble, leading a country is not as easy at it seems, for his conspirators are not the pure-hearted reformers they claim to be, and forces both within the country and without conspire to overthrow Tamas himself for the sake of their own power. Meanwhile, Tamas’s estranged son, the powder mage and expert marksman Taniel, is willing to aide his father’s quest to make the world a better place, but he has issues of his own. Meanwhile, Adamat, a retired investigator must track down a traitor even as he is being blackmailed himself. As long-ignored religious forces begin gathering, even the vaunted powder mages, whose abilities allow them to control bullets and ignite gunpowder from a distance, are hard-pressed to tell ally from enemy.

Given that the synopsis of Brian McLellan’s Promise of Blood promises a book overflowing with political intrigue and action, it’s surprising how little of it actually ends up on the page. Yes, there are battles and even warfare. But there is also an inordinate amount of time spent with the characters running in circles and trying to figure out what’s going on around them. Part of this is McClellan’s worldbuilding, which is complex and usually runs smoothly. But sometimes it breaks both the story’s tension and the fourth wall by stopping mid-fight to explain what, precisely, a powder mage can do with gun powder or a bullet. This effect is jarring at best, and while it tells the reader how cool the powder mages are, it could also have the effect of making the reader wonder how the people in this world figured out that gunpowder, of all things, grants certain people magical abilities. One might imagine a mad scientist talking a group of overtired and underpaid university students into ingesting a series of mystery substances to see what happens.

For fans of magic systems, though, Promise of Blood has plenty to offer, as it contains no less than four kinds of magic users. Powder mages, the Privileged, the Predeii, and those with peculiar Knacks whose powers are unique to the wielder, and often plot-convenient.

This isn’t to say that there is nothing entertaining about Promise of Blood. There is plenty of politicking to be had, and if some of it seems to come out of nowhere, that can be blamed on the characters’ having plenty of other things to think about– such as how to deal with the rebellion and violence that is the natural progression of political upheaval. Each of the characters has their strengths and flaws, thought the flaws are often on display more than the strengths. And in some cases, those strengths turn into flaws. Tamas, for example, has a genuine desire to do what’s best for the downtrodden commons, but he fails to anticipate that his fellow conspirators might have their own selfish motives for helping him. Taniel has a genuine desire to serve his country, but his desire to be a good soldier puts his health in danger. Adamat is devoted to his family, but keeping them out of danger could compromise his own morals.

There are intriguing elements of promise of blood and the makings of compelling character work, but the whole picture is something of a letdown, as though McClellan was in such a rush to make his world and his story so cool and compelling that he forgot to get out of the way of his own plot and characters.

Still, that’s not to say that Promise of Blood is a bad book. It has as many high points as low ones, and certain flaws can be overlooked if the reader cares more about character than plot. But if its aim is to find fans outside the sub-genre of military fantasy, Promise of Blood may be facing a long shot in the dark.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Promise of Blood

  1. McClellan is one of many authors I’ve wanted to try since I first heard of their books. It seemed like a potentially interesting world, though you bring up an issue that’s always a risk with this type of book, that the interest in the mechanics of whatever magic system is used overpower the story. It reminds me, perhaps, of some hard science fiction stories where the idea is far more important than whatever story the author chose to wrap around it. And as you point out, that’s not necessarily bad, it just won’t appeal to every audience. I’ve found I can enjoy either but it very much depends on my mood. There are times I don’t care about clever new ideas, I just want a well-told story. But other times I’m very open to the “oh’s and ah’s” of idea fiction. So that and some of the other items you discuss lead me to think this could be something I might enjoy, but at the right time. I’m glad I read the review, thanks much!

  2. You’re welcome! Definitely give it a try if you like military fantasy. Several of the characters were interesting and the plot had its moments, but I’m not a big fan of hard magic systems. It always feels like I’m sitting through a chemistry lesson during the explanations of how the magic works.

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