“The Age of Kings is dead. And I have killed it.”

Field Marshal Tamas’s coup against his king sends corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brings bread to the starving. But it also provokes war in the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics and greedy scrambling for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers’ unions and mercenary forces.

Stretched to his limit, Tamas relies heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be Tamas’s estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty will be tested to its limit.

Brian McClellan takes the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, mixes in a healthy dose of magic, and comes up with a surprisingly fresh take on the traditional fantasy epic.

Sure, the stereotypes are there – the veteran military leader who begrudgingly takes power, the wise investigator who always gets his man, and the young punk shooting his way to glory. There are even double-dealing magicians and shady politicians. But, by taking us away from the Tolkeinesque settings we are so used to, and thrusting them into such a different setting, everything old is new again.

In fact, the worldbuilding is a major strength of Brian McClellan, a former student of Brandon Sanderson. He’s really thought out every aspect of his creation in great detail and it shines through, but never bogs down, the story. As we explore the various lives of his characters, there’s a real substance to both their lives and their surroundings. Perhaps it’s because everything is a twist on actual historical events, but it works.

Whether we are with Tamas as he deals with the political ramifications of his coup, or Adamat as he investigates various shady goings-on, or with Taniel as he pursues a dangerous sorceress from one end of the country to the other, McClellan keeps the pages turning and the pace unrelenting. There are enough duels, sieges, assassinations, espionage, vengeful gods, and deep dark magic to keep everyone happy, and certainly never bored.

McClellan has also tried to do something different with the magic in the book, somewhat less successfully. The nobility and the enemies of the revolution have old-school sorcerers on their side, the Privileged, tapping into their powers with a lot of hocus-pocus. However, the Powder Mages gain their magic from gunpowder and its effects range from giving them super-abilities to being able to shoot bullets around corners or over great distances with perfect accuracy. To tap into this power, the Mages must ingest the powder, either by sniffing it or licking, and it’s dangerously addictive. Swap cocaine for gunpowder and you can see where McCellan is going, with Taniel basically a nose-bleeding addict in denial, trying to convince everyone he’s having a good time. Unfortunately, it’s a subplot handled more like an after-school special, lacking the subtlety of the way McClellan uses his other influences. There’s a predictability to Taniel’s development that gets increasingly irritating as the book goes on, despite the fact he’s supposed to be the cool character in the book.

Even his relationship with his estranged father is a bit cookie-cutter. Sure, it can’t have been easy growing up with Tamas as a father but his gripes are all a bit too “woe is me.” No wonder his fiancée left him for another man. Taniel, more often than not, needs a good clip around the head more than the intervention that is no doubt coming in book two.

Surprisingly, Adamat is the most interesting character here, equally at home in the criminal underworld as he is in the political and religious arenas. An unrelenting investigator trying to do the right thing, he cuts a very sympathetic figure as he tries to do his job as his world turns upside down around him.

There’s also a very varied mix of supporting characters, from a chef who may well be a god, to a bodyguard that never sleeps, from a mute savage of a girl to the boxer who’s taken one hit too many. In fact, often these secondary characters steal the limelight from the actual heroes of the book, and it is where McClellan really shines with some snappy dialogue and cool action.

A Promise Of Blood isn’t the perfect book, but it is a fun book that’s hard to put down. McClellan has set the stage now to tell some wonderful stories, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. As long as he doesn’t get too bogged down with the “just say no” subplots and concentrates more on the far more interesting aspects of a world undergoing a social and cultural revolution, we could be in for something special.


By Mike Shackle

Mike Shackle is a citizen of the world, having lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and New York before returning to his hometown of London where he now resides with his wife, son and a French bulldog called Ribsy. His other constant traveling companions around the globe have been his comic books, his favorite fantasy novels and an army of super-hero statues. He more often than not can be found daydreaming over a cup of tea.

One thought on “Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.