Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I've sometimes wondered if Jon Courtenay Grimwood is an author perpetually one step ahead of his audience. I do not refer to trends or patterns in genre, as, on this front, he is most often behind the times. I refer instead to his sense of style—his mannerisms while writing. Smooth yet indirect, the reader must put a little effort into penetrating the surface—not a lot, but a little. They must have an active mind to keep pace, even as the story he's telling is familiar at heart. And we all know what happens when most readers are asked to invest a little effort in their reading material. They give up, meaning Grimwood has not enjoyed the same success as some of his peers, despite writing the more sophisticated versions of familiar material. But in writing the Assassini trilogy, which The Fallen Blade (2011) is the first act of, Grimwood seems to have accepted market demands. Settling into a far more accessible groove, the story of Venice prowled by the paranormal is one fat spoonful of genre fare.

The familiarity in content as much style, The Fallen Blade takes the mindset of A Game of Thrones and marries it to Twilight substance. Werewolves and assassins, dukes and demons, princes and army regiments vie for power and control of 13th century Venice—a time when the city held great commercial power in the Mediterranean. Nobles warring with poisons and assassins after dark and openly with soldiers in the daytime, the canal city glitters on the exterior but is stinking to the core on the inside, corruption and depravity rampant. A gifted boy falling into the hands of an evil man one evening, he is trained as an assassin, all the while he tries to discover his lost history and the secrets behind his strange powers. Anything becoming possible beneath the arches of Venice in the aftermath, crossbows and cabals collide to decide who holds power in one of the world's most opulently and beautiful cities.

Grimwood's most overtly commercial effort to date, in The Fallen Blade he attempts to cash in on a classic fantasy motif: a young man with unexplored special powers but no memory must re-learn his past all the while enemies threaten his life in a kingdom rife with intrigue and schemes. Not Volume I or Book 1 of the series, Grimwood openly calls the novel Act I, cementing the operatic mode. Various dramas playing out in said style, the nomenclature is unabashedly relevant.

But where The Fallen Blade presents non-standard Grimwood material, it does present a classic Grimwood protagonist. Like Raf from the Arabesk trilogy, Kit from End of the World Blues, Bobby from 9tail Fox, and others, Tycho (the young man with a lost history and special powers) is searching for a lost identity. Real life interrupting, the search is not easy. But Tycho faces an additional difficulty. Grimwood using the more overt fantasy trappings of the setting to his advantage, whenever Tycho kills someone, he takes on their memories, thus making it more and more difficult to distinguish his own history from others, thus further complicating the search for his past. Resolution of the issue saved for Act II and III, The Outcast Blade and The Exiled Blade, one can only assume Tycho will walk a similar inner path as other characters from Grimwood’s ouevre.

In the end, The Fallen Blade is well-paced, character-driven paranormal fantasy (i.e. vampires and werewolves) set in a darkly imagined 13th century Venice. Masks and daggers, canals and gondolas, it’s full-on opera at its core with familiar tropes of fantasy providing the spice. Italy the proverbial home of opera, there may be no better setting to write such a story.

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