Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini Trilogy. You can enjoy this intricate historical and political fantasy with its nuanced, layered characters on its own, or you can follow the Shakespearean references that glint throughout the work like a silver thread in a tapestry. The choice is yours.
It could be argued that The Fallen Blade doesn’t need any more intrigue, even if it is Shakespearean. Grimwood set his story in Venice at the beginning of the 15th century; perhaps the most politically complex city-state in a complex, turbulent era. Besides internal political struggles that are labyrinthine, elegant and cruel, Venice also has to fend off hungry invaders and outsiders from everywhere. Alliances are as evanescent as morning mist, loyalty is fleeting and honor a dangerous luxury. Add magic to this bubbling cauldron and the whole mixture ignites, part fireworks and part firestorm.
The first character we meet is Tycho, who awakens in the secret hold of a Mamluk ship, shackled in silver, his memory in tatters. When Venetian customs agents come aboard, he escapes, nearly drowning in the attempt. He makes a psychic connection with Duchess Alexa, who rules Venice as Co-regent with her brother-in-law, the brutal Duke Alonso. Alonso and Alexa conspire against each other, using every weapon they can, while working together to keep the external enemies of Venice weak and distracted.
Tycho doesn’t eat. He can sense other people’s thoughts and see in the dark, but the sun, like silver, burns him. His reflexes are far faster than those of a mortal, and he hungers for human blood. His impulses and reactions are not human, although he does form an attachment to the beggar children who find him washed up on the side of a canal, and the Lady Giulietta, Duchess Alexa’s niece.
Atilo, the Blade of Venice, serves both the Duke and Duchess as the city’s master of assassins. Atilo is a Moor, not a native of Venice, who has caused resentment and jealousy among many of the nobles by his rise, and because of liaison with Desdaio, the pretty daughter of the richest man in the city. Three months before Tycho was discovered, Atilo lost nearly all his assassini in a battle with werewolf soldiers. When he sees Tycho in action, he enslaves him, intending to teach him the arts of the assassin. He sees Tycho as his successor, but it is clear that Tycho has no loyalty toward him.
The relationship between Atilo and Desdaio is the least satisfying one in the book. It is clear that Desdaio loves Atilo, although it’s hard to see why. Atilo says he loves her, and behaves with the predictable jealousy required of his character, but he has not married her and ignores her through most of the book. Desdaio is kind-hearted, and, in a city where the most common coin for truth is death, courageously honest. She is intrigued by Tycho but loyal to Atilo. At the end of Book One, their story is incomplete. Will it end as Othello does, or will Grimwood surprise us?
Atilo and Desdaio are only one story in this elaborate saga. The reader learns more of Tycho’s history through flashbacks and bits of the story he tells to others. Part of that story seems to be a brutal but human existence in a Viking-settled colony in the new world, but it is clear that Tycho is not human.
Grimwood is remarkably un-sentimental about his characters. Everyone has a point of view and a motivation, and no one — well, almost no one — is purely good or purely evil. Cruel and vicious things are done to characters we like and by characters we like. Giulietta’s story, which is poised to be a powerful one, only gets started in this book, with much of her development happening off-stage. Early in the book, Giulietta was the victim of her Uncle Alonzo’s magic. Something terrible was done to her, something she can’t talk about — literally cannot talk about, because she is under a spell. How will the resolution of her situation intersect with Tycho’s?
For a long book that is only the first third of a story, it still seems that some areas get short shrift. Giulietta’s relationship with another character, a relationship that seems important, is not shown developing at all. It’s hard for me to tell if this is really a problem until the whole story has unfolded.
Near the end, in a scene that seems rushed, Tycho confronts a Mamluk captain who tells him how he came to be shackled in the hold of the Mamluk ship. Tycho finds out his original purpose — to be a weapon — and his original target.
Grimwood is a writer whose plots I never can predict. He has a very different view of the world than I do, and I turn each page captivated and perplexed, wondering what these people are going to do next. It does seem that Tycho, now freed from slavery, will become the master of assassins, yet Grimwood’s Venice is not a city that can be trusted. Magic enchants, people lie and shadows can kill. Vengeance and plots percolate for generations. People make bad choices for good reasons, and live to regret them. The watery island city holds ghosts and magic, secrets and darkness. Prospero’s library will not be dukedom large enough for this elaborate, sprawling tale.