CLASSIFICATION: Combining alternate history with the supernatural, The Fallen Blade is kind of like Jasper Kent’s Twelve and Thirteen Years Later crossed with Anne Rice’s vampires and Underworld’s lycans, written in the style of Glen Cook.
FORMAT/INFO: The Fallen Blade is 464 pages long divided over two Parts, sixty-three numbered chapters, and an Epilogue. Also includes a map, the Millioni family tree, Dramatis Personae, an interview with the author, and an excerpt from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Narration is in the third person via Tycho, Atilo Il Mauros, Lady Giulietta dei San Felice di Millioni, Captain Roderigo, Iacopo, etc. The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini trilogy, but for the most part reads like a self-contained novel with the book coming to a satisfying stopping point.
ANALYSIS: It’s been five years since Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s last novel was published, the British Science Fiction Award-winning End of the World Blues. That book actually happens to be the only Grimwood novel I’ve ever read, but I absolutely loved it, and have every intention of going through the author’s backlist as soon as I can. That said, fantasy will always be my first love, so when I heard Grimwood was making his fantasy debut with The Fallen Blade, the book instantly became one of my most anticipated releases of 2011…
The first thing readers should understand about The Fallen Blade is that the book is an alternate history novel set in a 15th-century Venice ruled by Marco Polo’s descendants. I’m not the biggest fan of alternate history/historical fiction, but Jon Courtenay Grimwood does a tremendous job of creating a living, breathing Renaissance Venice that feels as convincing as the real thing, and is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. I particularly loved the amount of detail the author uses to establish the Millioni family and their complex political situation, which includes Duchess Alexa and Prince Alonzo vying for control of the throne, their trade routes coveted by the Mamluks, the Millioni declared as false princes by the Pope, and threats from the Germans, the Byzantines and Timur’s Mongols. Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to process all of the information that Grimwood throws at you, especially because of the manner in which he feeds readers info in tiny bits and pieces, but at the same time, it’s easy to become invested in the Renaissance Venice that the author has imagined.
Now if there is one thing negative to say about Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Venice, it’s that the setting sometimes overshadows the rest of the book. This is most evident regarding The Fallen Blade’s fantasy elements — including a vampire, werewolves (krieghund) and a witch (stregoi) — which only account for a small percentage of the novel. What’s so disappointing about the book’s fantasy elements is that Grimwood hardly spends any time at all explaining their purpose or presence, making them feel more like accessories than integral parts of the novel. I can understand the mysteriousness surrounding Tycho since most of the characters in the book don’t know what he is, including Tycho himself, but what about the krieghund or the witch A’rial? Fortunately, the fantasy stuff picks up during the novel’s climax, and I’m hopeful it’s a preview of things to come in the sequel.
Characters, meanwhile, are memorable and intriguing, led by Lady Giuletta and the silver-haired boy Tycho, while Lady Desdaio is the book’s most surprising character because she’s a supporting player who heavily factors into many of the novel’s most important moments. Characterization in The Fallen Blade is not particularly deep, and the characters would not be nearly as interesting if not for an unpredictable plot that forces the book’s characters through a series of engaging, life-altering circumstances. Take Lady Giuletta for example, who runs away to avoid a political marriage, becomes part of an assassination plot against the king of Cyprus, is abducted, and then falls in love with an enemy. The rest of the characters have their own issues to deal with, and seeing what drama unfolds and how they handle their situations is definitely one of the novel’s highlights.
Writing-wise, The Fallen Blade is a tale of two sides. On the one hand, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s world-building is convincing and immersive, and I was impressed by the author’s ability to manage the novel’s many different characters and subplots without losing control. On the other hand, Grimwood makes a number of questionable narrative decisions over the course of the novel. Like the uneven manner in which he shifts between viewpoints, with extended periods sometimes passing by before returning to a character — Atilo Il Mauros for instance. Or how viewpoints are provided for minor characters like Captain Roderigo and Iacopo as opposed to more important characters such as Lady Desdaio or Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland. Or the author’s decision to skip over most of Tycho’s Assassini training and the months Lady Giulietta and Prince Leopold spent together, which I felt were very significant moments in the novel that deserved a more in-depth account.
I should also point out that Grimwood’s writing style in The Fallen Blade is very reminiscent of Glen Cook’s writing style from his Instrumentalities of the Night series, including sparse prose, moments of telling instead of showing, and a noticeable level of detachment that is present in the storytelling and characterization. Personally, this wasn’t an issue for me as I’m a huge fan of Cook’s work, but for others, this could be a problem.
Overall, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s fantasy debut did not live up to my high expectations or its own immense potential. Nonetheless, The Fallen Blade is a well-written novel that features a fully realized setting, engaging characters, and a gripping story rife with complex politics and heartbreaking drama. In short, The Fallen Blade is still a very good book, and I definitely plan on being there for the second Act.