But the real battle was with himself. All the battles that really mattered were with yourself.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood ends The Exiled Blade, book three in his Acts of the Assassini series, with a spectacular three-act battle, and a wedding. This is a pleasing, sad, and haunting ending to his alternate history fifteenth century Venetian tale, where political intrigue and martial prowess function side by side with shape-shifters, demons and magic.
At the end of the second book, The Outcast Blade, Duchess Alexa, Regent of Venice, had prevailed over Duke Alonzo and was preparing to have him exiled. Giulietta and Tycho, the demon-orphan hero of the trilogy, were together, and were happy. It didn’t seem like there was anywhere left for the third book to go, but by page 36 Grimwood has pulverized Giulietta’s and Tycho’s chances for happiness with one act of stunning brutality. So, um, kudos, Jon.
This devastating attack on Giulietta’s family sends Tycho on a quest, following Alonzo, who has been allowed to go to the colony of Montenegro to “subdue” the rebellious Red Crucifers, a fighting order of monks. Back in Venice, everyone soon realizes that Alonzo has no intention of breaking the rebel order; he plans to join them and wage war on Venice.
The action shifts between Venice, the city surrounded by a frozen lagoon during one of the worst winters in memory, and Montenegro, where Tycho plans to infiltrate Alonzo’s stronghold. A character from the first book, Amelia, a trained assassin, returns in this one. She and Tycho find an abandoned fort in front of a disturbing cave, and that cave will have great meaning for Tycho as the story develops.
While Tycho is fending off seasoned mercenaries and deadly water demons, Giulietta is dealing with grief and deep personal betrayal. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund still wants to claim Venice for his empire, and sends his young illegitimate son Frederick back into the city to woo Giulietta. Frederick is a nice guy, and in their wolf forms, he and his pack, the Krieghund, fought with Tycho to save Venice at the end of the second book. Giulietta is so devastated and lonely that Sigismund’s plan might work.
The characters continue to develop here. The Duchess Alexa, who is battling her own mortality, makes a shocking decision in an attempt to save her son Marco. Marco, called “Marco the Simple” and believed by many to be an idiot, is one of best and most perplexing characters in the books. As the “Hamlet” character, he feigns madness, or idiocy, to protect himself from his uncle’s murderous attempts. He is far from an idiot, but even so, his way of looking at things is definitely… quirky.
The real character arc here, though, is and has always been Tycho’s, as he struggles to discover what he really is, and to fit in with human society. We have seen Tycho grow and be rewarded for that growth, but in this book Tycho faces the true test; he is given choices where doing the right thing works against his own happiness. Unlike fairy tales or some fantasy books, these choices are not make-believe; the results won’t be undone later by a spell or by the power of love. Tycho’s world is a harsh one, where a man can make sacrifices that will never be seen or even known by those he sacrificed for. If there is a reward or a consolation prize for these choices, it is knowledge of his own heritage that Tycho is given by some of the ancient gods he encounters in Montenegro.
Without creating spoilers, I want to acknowledge Tycho’s journey toward the human, as he bonds in spite of himself with one particular character while in Montenegro. I thought this was extremely well done, and I’m not going to say any more than that.
Giulietta also grows in the course of this book; she is actually pushed into growth by loss after loss. She will become the next Regent of Venice and she has to be ready for that. Actions in this book left me feeling that she is a bit inconsistent. Grimwood’s desire to keep the Shakespeare themes alive (which he does well, especially with Marco’s story), leads to Giulietta attempting suicide, for the second time in this series. This scene is needed in order to create a specific problem for Tycho, who is the main character, but Giulietta’s act is stunningly ill-timed and actually supports the argument of the Council of Ten that she isn’t equipped to act as Regent. Marco manages to turn her recovery into a propaganda coup, but is this girl really ready to rule a city? It’s hard to reconcile the girl who reaches for a dagger or her aunt’s bottles of poisons every time the going gets tough with the woman warrior all in white armor we see at the end of the story. Of course, she does grow, and of course the story here is not hers, but Tycho’s, and sometimes one character’s development does have to be sacrificed for the main character.
Along the way, Grimwood’s fine writing and insights about humanity make the book even more worthwhile.
…in between his moments of rage-filled fantasy he sharpened his daggers until their edges glittered and their points could pierce boiled hide. Having sharpened them, he oiled them against rust and made sure they slid effortlessly from their sheaths. Then he sharpened them again and again, until their edges cut almost before touching and the points could make the very air bleed.
So sweet, Giulietta thought, then remembered the night Frederick led a snarling war pack against the byzantine infantry. They’d ripped heavily armed spearmen to shreds, with Frederick leading. So, not sweet after all – just kind, which she was coming to realize, was different. He was two people and his kindness involved not letting them overlap.
The climax is a stunning battle and a powerful duel; the very end is a coronation and a wedding. Tycho has discovered a bit more about his own nature. If I read the very last few pages correctly, by the end of this book Tycho may have found something as valuable as romantic love; he may have found a friend, and one who’ll be around for a while. After all he’s been through, he certainly deserves one.
This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to an interesting series, where political intrigue and military strategy play as much of a role as magic. Grimwood’s Venice is old, magical, beautiful, frightening and as real as a knife blade.