ACT ONE OF THE ASSASSINI
The Fallen Blade
(The Assassini, Book 1)
Jon Courtney Grimwood
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
Date: 5th April 2012 (First Published 2011)
A ship docks at night in the city state of Venice, and customs officers board the vessel never suspecting the cargo would include a naked boy in chains—a boy with no name, and no memory of his past. Nor could they anticipate that allowing him to escape captivity would mean releasing someone with unnatural speed and strength, an aversion to sunlight, and a hunger for blood on to the streets of the city. But freedom will prove elusive for the mysterious boy once he unwittingly draws the attention of the Assassini: the secret society of assassins in the employ of the puppet masters behind the royal throne. Now the leader of the group will hunt down the boy with no name, for he has finally found the perfect apprentice to train.
Although he also writes literary fiction and crime thrillers under pen names, British author, Jon Courtney Grimwood, is known principally for his science fiction works, so the publication of The Fallen Blade a decade ago represented something of a departure for him, in its capacity as the first book of a historical fantasy trilogy that has a lot going for it at first glance. Set in an alternate history Venice in the early fifteenth century, this is a novel that has all the necessary ingredients for a 5-star masterpiece: an enticing premise; mysterious characters with intriguing backstories; a great setting built upon a fascinating historical period; several genre-bending story elements; and a plot ripe for political shenanigans and Machiavellian agendas. Sadly, The Fallen Blade fails spectacularly to deliver.
What’s most disappointing about the book’s failure is that the strong opening chapters promise so much more than the author subsequently managed to deliver. From the outset, Grimwood’s tale demands the reader’s attention. One moment it teases with the mystery of the nature and origin of the young protagonist, Tycho; the next moment it exhilarates with bloody skirmishes between soldiers and werewolves on the streets of Venice at night, under the watchful eyes of a master assassin lurking in the dark. This thrilling opening to the book reads like Guy Gavriel Kay writing a fantastical melding of the Underworld movies with the Assassin’s Creed games. The resultant expectations created by such a promising start are, sadly, never met.
Long before The Fallen Blade reaches its lacklustre conclusion, it is painfully apparent that the author didn’t really know how to turn a great premise into a compelling story with a coherent narrative. There is a persistent lack of focus in the writing that becomes ever more pronounced as the story progresses, making it impossible to succinctly summarise the plot. The only definitive thing that can be said of the plot is that it’s an incoherent mess of multiple storylines and sub-plots with too many point of view characters, none of which is developed to any meaningful degree. But these issues were, perhaps, inevitable. There is such an abruptness to the author’s prose that it’s little wonder so many facets of the novel are so shallow and underdeveloped. Minimal effort was expended to flesh anything out, whether it be the characters or the setting, presumably because of a desire to make the plot move even faster. All too frequently, chapters end in just three or four pages (sometimes less), as Grimwood haphazardly jumps from one plot thread to another, and one character to another.
The most surprising observation about the book’s failings is that its biggest weaknesses are the very things that should have been its greatest strength. Rather than adhering strictly to the well trodden tropes of fantasy fiction, The Fallen Blade, takes inspiration from the works of William Shakespeare, notably Othello, Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet, while also appropriating elements from other genres, most notably urban fantasy and horror. These borrowed elements had the potential to add something substantive to the tale of political shenanigans and Machiavellian agendas, yet the author’s unwillingness or inability to develop them means they merely serve as window dressing rather than integral constituents of the story, which is a pity. If utilised better, the supernatural and horror elements infused into the narrative may have resulted in a stronger, more rewarding novel.
Regrettably, the novel’s shortcomings do not end with the lack of focus and coherence in the writing—this is just the tip of the iceberg. The inherent weakness of the world building is also noteworthy. It’s unconvincing on many levels due to the alternate history setting being so poorly constructed, both in conception and execution. This criticism is obviously a subjective one, but it’s hard to make a case that the historical alterations made to the timeline by the author are believable. One such example is that the ruling family of Venice are the descendants of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan (by way of one of his daughters). The believability of the setting is further hampered by the lack of detail in much of Grimwood’s descriptions, to the extent that it never truly feels as though events are unfolding in the Mediterranean region during the early fifteenth century.
Characterisation, likewise, doesn’t fair much better than the word building. Although there was undoubted potential for the two principal characters to be genuinely compelling, the lack of any meaningful development prevents that potential from ever coming to fruition. This is a missed opportunity on the part of the author, because both characters have very interesting backstories, but the notable lack of depth, coupled with the fact that they are both depicted in a manner which makes them irredeemably unlikeable, effectively ensures that they are memorable for the wrong reasons.
Starting with, Tycho, who is ostensibly the protagonist of the book, when he is first introduced as a chained prisoner below deck on a ship, he is instantly intriguing. A teenage boy of unknown origins, unable to retain his memories for longer than a few hours at a time, with an aversion to sunlight that hurts his eyes and burns his skin, plus a hunger he doesn’t understand. Sadly, Tycho, never truly develops into the character he could and should have been. The author doesn’t provide enough insight into the character, which makes Tycho’s story hard to invest in or care about. And making it harder still is his penchant for being aggressive and violent towards the female characters, an attribute which will predispose many reader to disliking him; and there’s no coming back from that.
Much the same can be said of the second unlikeable character in question, Atilo, a thinly veiled Othello knock-off. As is the case with Tycho, when Atilo is initially introduced he is immediately a very interesting character, with a great backstory too. A Moorish military leader forced to renounce his religion, homeland and family, then pledge allegiance to Venice and serve Venetian royalty as the head of a secret society of Assassins. Regrettably, it quickly transpires that Atilo isn’t a particularly nice person, and perhaps this is to be expected of someone whose vocation is killing. But while it’s easy to accept that a certain amount of ruthlessness is required of an assassin, his casual and almost habitual violent abuse of women and children is much harder to overlook. Sure, an argument can be made that it was probably the norm for fifteenth century men to beat women and children to “keep them in line” or “show them who’s boss”, however, a little less realism would have gone a long way to making him a sympathetic character—this is a fantasy novel, after all.
In conclusion, despite its compelling premise, The Fallen Blade is a confused alternate history tale that promises a lot more than the author was able to deliver. Being the first instalment of a trilogy, it does little to incentivise the reading of the sequels. Whether this failing is because the fantasy genre is not Grimwood’s forte is hard to say without being familiar with his writing in other genres, but it’s a given that had an author of the calibre of Jacqueline Carey been given this book’s premise to work with she would have crafted a riveting five-star masterpiece.