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Promise of Blood
by Brian McClellan
Orbit Books, $16.00, 608 pp
Published: April 2013

Coup d’tats are messy business. Just ask Field Marshal Tamas, leader of the Adro army. There’s quelling the resistance from the remaining royalists. And dealing with the threat from the neighboring nation of Kez. And tracking down a powerful mage who killed several of his men. And feeding the starving townsfolk.  And one of his council of co-conspirators could be a plotting against him. Oh, and someone is trying to resurrect a dead god to come and destroy him and the rest of Adro.

The leader of the rebellion has his hands full in Promise of Blood, Brian McLellan’s exciting debut novel. Originally released in 2013, the novel kicked off the flintlock fantasy “PowderMage” series, and was followed by The Crimson Campaign last year. The latest, The Autumn Republic, comes out in February.

There are several different types of magic at play in the novel.

The Privileged are the elite protectors of the king, a cabal who wield the power of the elements at their fingertips, as long as they wear special runed gloves. Mage-breakers are Privileged who have eschewed their own powers to tamp down the abilities of others. The Knacked possess a single talent, usually something useful but somewhat mundane — like not requiring sleep, or being an expert tracker.

Finally, there are the Powder Mages. They are a newer form of magician and draw their power from gunpowder. They ingest it to greatly increase their marksmanship and range, allowing them to snipe targets at over two mile distances. But while it heightens their senses, they can become addicted to the powder rush. Tamas and his army includes many powder mages, the Monarchy controls the Privileged.

Promise of Blood deals with the aftermath of a French Revolution-style rebellion in a fantasy setting, tracking a series of plotlines in the immediate aftermath of Tamas’ guillotining of Adro’s King Manhouch. The Privileged tasked with protecting the king all died with a taunt on their lips, with the exception of one unusually powerful mage who escaped, killing many of Tamas’ men along the way.

The novel tracks these mysteries — who is the mage who escaped, and where did she come from, and what did the other Privileged mean with their taunt of “Kresimir’s Broken Promise.” These investigations divide the POVs of the novel. Tamas hires Adamat, a constable-turned-private-investigator to find the meaning behind the mages’ last words, while he sends his son Taniel, a powerful powder mage himself, to find the mysterious Privileged. A last POV follows a laundrymaid who helps the last son of the royal family escape the guillotine. The novel jumps between these POVs, building to a series of climaxes that explode the action to a grand scale.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the story immensely — McClellan’s plotting was intricate and engaging and I had trouble putting the book down. I also appreciated the “technology vs. mysticism” quality of the struggle between the upstart powder mages and the entrenched Privileged. There was a grand struggle between the two philosophies in Promise of Blood.

But the book was horribly derivative of Brandon Sanderson.

Intricate magic system — check.

Multiple POVs — check.

Dead gods rising — check.

In fact, many aspects of powder magic seemed uncomfortably similar to Mistborn’s Allomancy. That could be a natural response, Sanderson is McClellan’s friend and mentor. But sometimes the influence crossed into recasting Sanderson’s style in a different setting.

There were also several characters who had little or no purpose within the book, such as Vlorn, Tamas’ adopted daughter and the ex-lover of Taniel. She is mentioned but is never more than window dressing, occasionally coming in with a report but never having any action. I understand this may change in future books, but in Promise of Blood she is two-dimensional background noise.

Still, I was intrigued by the philosophical considerations of the novel and engaged by the characters, mysteries and action. And I will continue with this series as Tamas’ struggle grows from mere political wrangling to a grand battle of Gods and men. ~~ Michael Senft

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