Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. ★★★
Trigger warning for attempted rape
Promise of Blood started off well but never lived up to my expectations. The pacing and action were pretty good, and the world building was alright. However, Promise of Blood has a serious problem: the characters.
Let me back up and explain what this book is actually about. There’s a nation that has been ruled by a single line of monarchs for as long as anyone can remember… until a military leader named Tamas kills the king and ushers in a new regime. It’s reminiscent of the French Revolution, particularly given the changing technologies of the time, the staving peasants, and the corrupt court. However, as each royal mage is killed, they speak the same mysterious words. If the revolution weren’t enough, the gods themselves may be involved.
The world building was functional. I liked that the technology was a bit more current (well, if 1800ish is current) than most fantasy novels. However, I don’t think the magic system was really worth naming the series after. There’s three main sorts of magic systems – the super powerful magic used by sorcerers (never clearly defined what exactly they can do); the knacked, who have one skill that’s probably not worth a lot; and the powder mages who snort gunpowder and then can… push bullets with their minds, sense gunpowder and make it explode, plus get increased strength and endurance? Saying it like that makes it sound like it could be interesting in theory, but it’s really not. Maybe it’s just not explored well?
For the most part, the book alternates between three main characters (there’s a fourth who gets a few scenes that I’ll talk about later): the aforementioned Tamas; his son Taniel, a solider; and Adamat, a retired police inspector who Tamas is having investigate the mysterious words. Eventually I realized that these three leads have no distinguishing personality characteristics. Their voices sound exactly the same. Thank goodness they were never all in the same scene or I might have gotten really confused.
If you haven’t guessed from the “all three of the main characters are men,” this book contained very little in the way of female characters or really diversity of any kind. It’s overwhelmingly straight, white and male; there’s an x-ray function on my ebook that lets me see how many time each character is mentioned – eight out of the top ten most frequently mentioned characters are straight white men. (Spoiler!) Oh, and the one black guy gets shot in the head (End spoiler!). The most mentioned female character was this mysterious magical mute girl who honestly wasn’t that important and didn’t have much of a presence. The most important female character was the villainess.
Nila, a laundress, got about four total POV sections. Maybe she’ll become important later in the series, but she was not important in Promise of Blood. One of her first scenes was the attempted rape scene, which was stopped by her eventual love interest. Given that he’s in the book much more than she is, I feel like the scene was included to tell us what a wonderful guy he is, which I find irritating.
There’s more I could say about this book and gender dynamics, but I don’t want to go on to long. Moving on to something more positive, I liked the plotting and pacing. I liked the unfolding of mysteries, the involvement of the gods and religion, and the action scenes. The plot’s fairly engaging.
Unfortunately, eventually other things about the book bothered me enough that I enjoyed it less and less as I went on. If only the three leads had been at all distinguishable or the female characters had more to do, this would have been a book I enjoyed a lot more. I like the idea of a plot inspired by the French Revolution, but I wouldn’t recommend Promise of Blood if you at all care about female characters.