The Fallen Blade is set in an alternate version of early 15th century Venice, ruled by the Milioni family, who are descendants of Marco Polo. Jon Courtenay Grimwood offers a vividly realized fantasy setting with this not quite historically accurate but still surprisingly realistic version of “la Serenissima,” the Serene Republic of Venice. You’ll get many authentic looks at what life in this amazing city-state must have been like, from the perspectives of both the rich and the poor. As a matter of fact, readers who are unaware of the changes Grimwood has made to the actual history of Venice might mistake this for a historical novel with fantasy elements, rather than a combination of alternate history and dark fantasy. Regardless, the setting of The Fallen Blade is one of its real strengths.
It’s unfortunate that Grimwood took this intriguing starting point and overloaded it with what seems like enough material for at least another novel or two. Within the first few chapters, you’ll encounter a vampire, werewolves, assassins, competing gangs, a witch, a magician, a contested regency, a romantic rivalry, and that’s not nearly all. There’s so much going on in the first 100 or so pages of this novel that it frankly becomes too cluttered and hectic to be really enjoyable.
Unwrapping a few of the key elements: the titular Duke of the city is Marco IV, but since he is, as the saying goes, several sandwiches short of a picnic, his uncle Alonzo (brother of Marco III, the last Duke) is the official Regent, with his mother Alexa (the last Duke’s widow) pulling at least as many strings both in the city’s Council of Ten and behind the scenes. Lady Giulietta is the Duke’s cousin and about to be shipped off to Cyprus for a politically expedient marriage she is entirely unhappy with. Lady Desdaio is one of the most desired women in Venice, being both very attractive and the daughter of one of the richest men in the city. Roderigo, the captain of the Dogana, is courting her, but wouldn’t you know it, she falls for Atilo, a heathen Moor who also happens to be the leader of the Assassini, a group of assassins that function as the city’s secret enforcers. Still with us so far? Good. Now add to this mix what appears to be a revenant vampire in the form of an impossibly gorgeous young man, who arrives in Venice as a captive with only the vaguest memories of his mysterious origins, and a group of werewolves (called krieghund) who seem to be agents of a competing government. When Lady Giulietta runs away and the krieghund attack her, Atilo’s assassini are decimated trying to protect her, leaving Venice without much of its secretive security forces…
Most of these items are introduced in the first 50 or so pages of The Fallen Blade, which occasionally makes it feel like a particularly violent episode of something like The Bold and the Beautiful with added vampires and werewolves. On the one hand, there are the beautifully authentic descriptions of life in 15th century Venice, but on the other, it feels as if you simply can’t walk across the street in this city without encountering half a dozen street battles, intrigues, crimes, supernatural creatures and romantic rivalries. The story gallops along at an impossibly rapid pace, divided into many short chapters and jumping from character to character quickly. This is mirrored in the novel’s prose: Jon Courtenay Grimwood frequently uses periods instead of commas, turning sentence fragments into separate sentences, giving some paragraphs a staccato, stop-start rhythm.
If there’s just too much packed in the first third or so of The Fallen Blade, the pace fortunately slackens somewhat later on. Once you’re able to catch your breath, the network of intrigues and rivalries begins to take shape and becomes much more enjoyable to follow. Grimwood also gradually reveals more about his characters’ past, which leads to some very intriguing questions that will hopefully be dealt with in future volumes of the ASSASSINI. Most interesting of course is Tycho, the revenant vampire with vague flashback memories of his past, but both Atilo, the old leader of the diminished assassini, and Alexa, the mysterious, hidden power player in the republic’s politics, are fascinating characters.
The final parts of The Fallen Blade revert back to the hectic pace of the beginning, shifting some of the action out of Venice with an unlikely, desperate sea battle and an unfortunate deus ex machina ending, but there are also hints at hidden depths as Tycho’s past becomes more defined. The background story of this fantasy world is intriguing (and clearly covers more than just Venice) but it’s occasionally hard to spot it between everything else that’s thrown at you. Be sure to check out the “Extras” section in the back of the book for some interesting thoughts from the author about the ASSASSINI’s world.
There’s a lot more going on in The Fallen Blade than I’ve even hinted at here. For example, you don’t think we’d have an impossibly attractive, almost otherworldly young male vampire without at least some romantic tension, right? There are also some instances of shockingly gory violence and torture that may take more sensitive readers by surprise. The novel combines moments of genuine excitement and an intriguing pseudo-historical setting with many moments where it feels like there’s just too much happening at the same time. My experience with The Fallen Blade frequently swung from bewilderment to enjoyment and back, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
In fantasy nowadays, assassins are hot, and vampires are even hotter, so as surely as the night doth follow the day, a vampire assassin had to be on the way. Jon Courtenay Grimwood delivers with The Fallen Blade, book one in a series that promises to be a wild, improbable adventure in Renaissance Europe and possibly beyond. The novel is far from perfect and occasionally strays into full-on pulp territory, but there’s so much happening that it’s hard not to be entertained.