Monday, 29 December 2014

Mages, Sorcery and bullets???... What the heck?!

I have a few pretty firm prejudices when it comes to fantasy. There are some things that just shouldn't be messed with. It's a bit like the way I've always thought that women shouldn't try and sing songs by Queen. No matter how well it's done, it just never sounds right to me.

When it comes to classic fantasy, I've always had a thing against gunpowder and guns in general. In my head at least, if you're going to have wizards then you can't have modernity to that extent. Oddly I have no issue with steam power. You want trains and pumps? No problem... get shovelling. Gunpowder? Oh hell no! Gandalf wasn't packing heat now was he? As for Saruman's bomb - well the less said the better.

Dwarves were always restricted to crossbows and axes in my imaginings. Sure they could have mines and all manner of innovations but we're not having guns and cannons. I know this is silly but then clich├ęd stereotypes do  have their place and, if you think about it, they form the core of any genre. Give me a dwarf with a vaguely Scottish accent swigging beer by the tankard and with a beard that comes down to his knees and I'm happy. We won't think too closely about how much of a pain that beard would be... Eating soup? Washing? Sleeping without strangling yourself?

With all this in mind then, I should have been less than keen on Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood. The novel is the first in his Powder Mage trilogy and delivers on every image that those two words conjure up. Mages with the ability to draw their power from gunpowder itself and influence the path of bullets. People with the capability to enter powder trance by snorting the stuff like snuff and enhance their senses and strength When you add in the fact that there are classical sorcerers too then this should really not have been my thing at all. I should have HATED this.

Against all odds I absolutely loved this book. McClellan has an engaging voice and delivery a nation that has a feel of revolutionary Paris (or maybe that was just the guillotines). The reader is dropped right into the middle of the action with the city writhing is the throes of insurrection as a monarchy is overthrown and a fledgling republic created. There are no overly glaring info-dumps and the reader learns about the world through the eyes of McClellan's characters.

This is a book that is one huge juxtaposition. Classical fantasy tropes like sorcery are pitted against a clearly industrialised society with newspapers and unions. The powder mages themselves personify this clash between magic and modernity. Throw into the mix the re-emergence of half-forgotten gods and the concoction is complete. This combination of concepts should be jarring. It should clash horribly and the book ought to be a colossal train wreck, but it isn't. It's fabulous.

Are there holes in it? Of course there are. I think there are probably holes in any story if you choose to look hard enough. Writing is like any art, it needs to be observed from the correct distance. Sit too close to the stage at a ballet and you'll ruin the illusion. Stand too close to the painting and you'll miss the art and see nothing but brush strokes. A good story takes you out of yourself, up and away on the threads of the tale, if you choose to poke holes in it then you deserve to fall out of the sky.

The writing is solid with well-woven characters and an intricate plot. The machinations are cunning and the world well-forged. The magic is especially well done and balanced carefully so as not to be all-powerful. For me however, the real gem in this novel was the politics, both on the international level and also within the coalition behind the revolution. The fledgling leaders work on a basis of realpolitik and the brutal practicalities of their decisions lend a depth to the novel that would have been missing if it had all been fairy tale endings.

I simply cannot recommend this novel enough. Hands down the best thing I've read since Prince of Thorns and for many of the same reasons that made that work brilliant.