The Boy With the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick – Review
|Book Name:||The Boy With The Porcelain Blade|
|Formatt:||Paperback / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / New Weird|
|Release Date:||24th March 2014|
I always find it weird… reading a book by someone I’ve met. I first met Den Patrick in 2012 at Fantasy-Faction’s Q & A Session with Peter V. Brett, Myke Cole and Joe Abercrombie. At that point in time, Den Patrick was the ‘events organiser’ at the bookshop (Blackwells) that was hosting the event and seemed as excited as any member of the crowd that some of fantasy’s biggest names were about to storm his store. Little did I know, at that point in time, that Den was working on his own fantasy novel; a novel that could only have been written by someone who had read widely and extensively within the fantasy genre (benefits of working in a bookstore, I guess!) and who has true creative vision.
Although, as you might expect, ‘The Boy’ in the title does own a ‘Porcelain Blade’, the title’s true meaning seems to be a metaphor to describe our protagonist’s different looks, outsider status and fragile position within the environment he lives. You see, for many years, misshapen ‘Orfano’ have been showing up around the Kingdom of Landfall. These ‘Orfano’ each have some kind of deformity (anything from mutilated body-parts to extraneous poisonous spines). Far from being pitied or made redundant from society, the King has ruled that Orfano are to be recognised as ‘special’. Although where they come from is unknown, there are strict rules in place to ensure that they are taken into the shared-care of the four noble-houses.
From there they will be trained to an elite level alongside other noble students and allowed to take the same tests they do in order to earn their place as a permanent member of one of the four houses. Of course, although those rules are in place, it isn’t that simple and not everyone likes them. Our protagonist, Lucien, is one of these Orfano in the process of testing to become a member of one of the houses and is far from enjoying life… Lucien recognises that with the King having been labelled insane many years ago, the nobles of the houses are free to play political games among themselves. It seems that Lucien and the other Orfano have become their favourite chess pieces and whilst some do, indeed, nurture and guide them towards possible-greatness, others work tirelessly to foil any kind of progress by disrupting their lives.
It has to be said that our protagonist, Lucien de Fontein, doesn’t help himself at times. Lucien has his sights set on joining House Fontein, which is the house of the fighting arts, despite the fact that the man who hates him more than any other and openly seeks his downfall sits in one of the top positions: Superiore Giancarlo di Fontein. Although most would yield with the fact that the man responsible for testing and deciding whether you were fit to join the house despises you, Lucien is a talented fighter. He sees no reason he shouldn’t be able to take any test that the Superiore throws at him and pass with flying colours.
The thing is, this means that the extent of Lucien’s life is a bitter challenge. His attempts to get better, pass and impress are consistently foiled and despite seeming the perfect candidate for the house, he is constantly lonely, made to feel self-conscious about his deformity, and well aware that he is being used as a mere pawn in a political game.
The story builds masterfully from centering on Lucien’s difficulty with the trials to expanding and becoming about his place in the world as an Orfano and an exploration of the corrupt political system that has resulted from the loss of visibility of the King. Patrick uses a style most reminiscent of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora to introduce a concept and confuse the reader in a way that they think perhaps they have missed something before going back in time to explain the origins of that concept and how it came into play.
If there is one thing that has to be said about Den Patrick’s world it is that he nailed the creation of complex characters. Whereas fantasy is often criticised for containing stock characters, in Landfall you’ll find creatures reminiscent of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, children who cry blood and men who harbor bodies that should have long since been buried in the ground amongst many other creations. I’ve heard Den admire Gormenghast before, stating that: ‘Just about all of the characters are grotesques, initially awful, settling into weird, and then oddly likeable’ and he should be proud how close to this he got. Additionally, each of the characters within the world of Landfall are unique individuals; all, but especially the Orfano, having to play their own games and make their own struggles within the corrupt political system… this forces you to constantly question who is working with, against and independently of Lucien.
Sadly, there were a number of issues that disrupted my ability to immerse myself fully within Patrick’s world. To take it back to bare bones, in order to keep a reader’s interest and allow them to read rapidly and without pause I feel that you need consistency and there were a few areas of Den Patrick’s work that either lacked or had too much of it. Firstly, although the content of The Lies of Locke Lamora was very good, the problem I had was that Lucien’s way of speaking and addressing never seemed to change in a way that was appropriate for his age. It seemed like the modern-day Lucien simply transported back in time and that was a little jarring. That said, Lucien did change throughout the course of the novel, but again it was in a jarring manner. I found that Lucien’s confidence often boiled-over into arrogance, so much so that at times I had trouble liking him and even began to understand why his superiors would loathe him and wish to stop him entering into his house.
Similar to this I did find that as inconsistent Lucien was, my understanding of the world was. The novel has a very gothic feel to it; think of something like Dracula crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth and you won’t be too far away in terms of tone. But then there are times when the book reads more like Lord of the Rings or The Gentleman’s Bastard series. I do remember reading an interview where Den said: “I had some ideas but couldn’t find the story that linked them.” So I wonder if perhaps this would explain that feeling. It is nice to have variety, but in many ways this book felt like a new author trying to find his feet and decide upon the kind of book he’d like to write.
My final issue with the novel is the lack of claustrophobia and atmosphere that Den Patrick is able to drum up. I can’t go into too much detail, but when a HUGE and deadly problem stands in Lucien’s way he seems to shrug it off and walk straight into it and then through it without much concern. Because this is such a slim book, part of me wonders whether Den cut a lot of words out and/or simply sacrificed a build-up full of danger and suspense for progress.
All this in mind, it is important to drive home the point that this is Den’s first novel. I do feel that by the end of the book Den had firmly locked on to what he wanted to achieve with this series and where the series will go from this point forth. If you are looking for a novel that will treat you to a dance across numerous genres, from sword-fighting to epic to flat out weird, this series gives you a little bit of everything. Lucien is a character that you may struggle to love at first, but who remains, throughout the novel’s entirety, interesting and multilayered. Although Patrick’s depiction of Lucien across the timelines disrupted my reading somewhat, the actual building of the plot and masterful way that the author uses the flashback technique to construct, enrich and unfold his story is highly rewarding a
nd will provide an ending that you are unlikely to see coming.
In a recent interview Den explained that the second book is told by a new viewpoint character (who we did meet in book one) and will be set eight years after this tale. Despite having mixed feelings about The Boy With the Porcelain Blade, if you ask me whether I’ll be picking up book two I can offer you an emphatic ‘yes’.