SPFBO 6: Finalist Review Black Stone Heart

Black Stone Heart


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Fantasy-Themed Cookbooks

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Multi-Book Review


The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Book Name: The Fallen Blade
Author: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: January 27, 2011

You have to be careful with vampires.

Their role in fiction has varied over the years, from an absolute evil that must be destroyed at all costs, to brooding anti-hero tormented by the darkness within, to love-sick pasty-faced teenager playing a part in a high-school romance. They have, as figures to garner our sympathy rather than our terror, lost their bite.

I picked up John Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade with some trepidation; thinking the story of a vampire within Venice of the early 1400s would consist of the usual angst, but this time with doublet and hose and heaving bosoms thrown into the mix. Stir for 400 pages, and you’d have a historical version of Twilight.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Our vampire arrives in Venice a prisoner, bound to a wall by silver shackles. Freed, as much by error as good fortune, he wanders the city confused and hungry. Almost an innocent abroad, he is unaware of his real nature; in a vision, he is given the name Tycho, yet his true identity remains a secret to himself as much as the reader.

I was impressed with the character of Tycho. Yes, he’s young. Yes, he’s white haired and pale. And yes, he does fall in love. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious what manner or creature Tycho really us, but at no point in the novel is the word ‘vampire’ used. I liked that; we all know what to expect from such beings, and by not referring to Tycho as a vampire, it gives Grimwood the opportunity to endow his young hero with powers we wouldn’t normally expect. Tradition does exist – Tycho can’t bear the sun and crossing water (a necessity in Venice) is all but impossible, although the latter is cleverly almost remedied – but there is enough added to make his vampirism feel fresh and new. His background is revealed in small stages, and even then not too much is given away; I’m sure there will be more surprises to come, even following the revelation of why Tycho was in Venice in the first place, one cleverly revealed within the last few pages of the book.

Yet, The Fallen Blade is about its location as much as character and Grimwood portrays a vivid Venice, a city that is at odds with itself. The seat of power and trade within the Mediterranean and beyond, Venice is seemingly ruled by a Duke who is unable to string a sentence together, while his aunt and uncle vie for the true power that his name holds. Some areas of Venice are new, while others are derelict shells that rot on the water; by night, the city is a frightening place, streets filled with whores and cut-throats, assassins and strange creatures. I began to wonder at one point if it would be the plots and schemes of the other characters that would corrupt Tycho, rather than his own vampiric nature.

Grimwood creates his characters to be as equally important as his vampire. There isn’t a bit player in sight, all having their roles within the intrigue and duplicity of Venitian society. Atilo, head assassin who seeks Tycho with the intention of making him his apprentice, particularly stands out. A Moor who was given the ultimatum to serve or watch his people die, Atilo has been loyal to Venice throughout his career, yet still has his doubts. Lady Guilietta, who could have so easily been a simpering teenager, is an equally rounded character full of inner strength and dignity. And they’re only two of several who all interlink with one another in sometimes surprising relationships.

I’m not sure how much I can say about the plot without giving too much away. There are twists and turns, as one would expect with all the intrigue, but none feel forced or convenient. Some are foreshadowed, while others are downright shocking. One scene involving Guilietta, a nun, an alchemist and a whore was utterly intense, an uneasy yet gripping read; Grimwood places us firmly in her head, forcing us to feel her terror, her fear at what is going to happen to her. If it had been a film scene, I’d possibly have looked away. Fights are vividly bloody and gory, some over with quickly, while others last for pages yet remain equally as dramatic.

I’d never read any of John Courtney Grimwood’s work before, so his writing style came as a surprise. I’ve heard his prose described as sparse, even shallow, but I’d say he’s economical with words; if one isn’t needed, it isn’t used, and those that he does are used well. His sentences are short, sometimes jarringly so, and this took some getting used to in the early pages. Once off and running though, the words fall into place. Grimwood doesn’t stop the action to spend too much time on detail (there are no vast descriptions of rooms and furniture, for instance), yet he is able to keep his Venice atmospheric and very much alive. The plot is fast moving, rattling along with barely time for a breath, his chapters are short and punchy, the end of each one always made me want to start the next. It’s a fast moving and atmospheric romp that I found difficult to put down, and read in just a few sittings.

Any criticisms, then? I’ve heard others say that they often lost track of who was betraying who, which side characters were backing in the race for the Venetian throne, but I didn’t have any problem with this; in fact, this is what gave the book its core strength. There are surprising shifts in allegiances, for sure, but these only add further layers to the intrigue, making it an engrossing read.

My only complaint is that it felt too short. I read the last page, and turned it over wanting more. I’ll get it – this is only Act One of the Assassini, after all – but it’s going to feel like a long wait. A writer more well known for his sci-fi than fantasy, John Courteney Grimwood has turned his hand to the genre with impressive results. What could have been yet one more clichéd vampire is a unique and refreshing character in an impressive setting. And, with expansion into Cyprus at the final part of the novel, who knows where events will take Tycho next?

I’ll be with him, and you should come along too.


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