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Book Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out: I love alternate history, Venice is one of my favourite cities (the book I’m working on is set there in large part), and it sounded like an interesting twist on the hoary old vampires-vs-werewolves trope. In all these respects I was not disappointed. Unfortunately it was not all moonlight and roses – but more about that later.

The Fallen Blade tells the story of Tycho, a young man of about seventeen who finds himself in early fifteenth-century Venice with no memory of his past and, worse still, strange inhuman abilities he does not understand. Even his name is given to him by the Venetians who find him, based on the first, garbled words he speaks.

As mentioned above this is an alternate history Venice, where Marco Polo returned from China to seize power and end the old republic, replacing it with a hereditary dukedom. Now his great grandson, Marco IV, sits on the throne of Serenissima, but the young duke is apparently mad, and his mother and uncle vie for power behind the throne. Chief amongst their retainers is Atilo the Moor, aging head of the Assassini, who sees in Tycho the ultimate assassin and his future heir.

Tycho is not so pliable, however, and resists his masters at every turn. When he comes up against a krieghund, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s werewolves, he discovers there is a secret magical war going on behind the mundane politicking…

There’s a lot to enjoy about this book. The world-building is fresh and intriguing, hinting at a broad canvas that will be pursued in subsequent books. Grimwood’s Renaissance Venice is suitably filthy, smelly and brutal, appropriately enough since what we mostly see is its seamy underbelly. But there were aspects of the writing that, for me at least, were less successful.

Firstly, I found the prose hard to follow in places. Grimwood is a little too fond of sentence fragments and odd punctuation, and the point of view lurches between omniscient and close third person in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as shaky handheld camerawork, the focus always seeming to shift away from a character or the action of a scene at a crucial moment. Add this to the large number of characters and plot threads being thrown at the reader in the opening chapters, and it makes for a disorienting kaleidoscope of imagery. The storytelling does eventually settle down to a clearer rhythm and builds to a set-piece action climax – only to be spoilt by a deus ex machina resolution to Tycho’s seemingly impossible mission.

Far more off-putting, however, was the constant catalogue of violence against the female characters in this novel. For a good two-thirds of the book, scarcely a chapter (and there are a lot of them) goes by without a young woman being abused, violated or, in the worst cases, horribly murdered. Admittedly few characters in this book escape violence and abuse, least of all pretty-boy Tycho, who spends so much of the book naked that one is frequently shocked to discover he is clothed in a given chapter. A certain amount of violence is expected in a book like this, but it is the unremitting, brutal and often sexual cruelty towards the girls that leaves this female reader with an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Now, one could say this is a historically accurate portrayal of a highly misogynistic culture, but surely it is the prerogative of the artist to pick and choose his subjects and arrange them according to the effect he wishes to produce? In this case, the effect was that I only continued reading the book in order to be able to give a fair and balanced review.

Overall, I feel disinclined to recommend this book, or to read the sequel. A pity, as Tycho is an intriguing character and I would like to know more about the Fallen. Not enough, however, to wade further through the fetid canals of Grimwood’s Venice.

Book Giveaway – February

January winners

Well, I’ve run the random number generator, and the lucky winners of the January giveaway are Tanja (“The First Five Pages”) and Em (“Slights”). Congratulations, and if you don’t get a confirmation email from me, do let me know! Commiseration to the losers, but there are plenty more books up for grabs!

February giveaways

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

This month’s “how to write” book  is the inspirational classic by Dorothea Brande. With chapter titles such as “What Writers are Like”, “Harnessing the Unconscious” and “Writing on Schedule”, this slim but eloquent volume covers all the fundamental aspects of unleashing the writer within. Although written way back in 1934, the advice is just as relevant in the 21st century (well, apart from the bits about owning two typewriters!).

The Stormcaller (Book One of The Twilight Reign) by Tom Lloyd

Another convention freebie, this time from Gollancz, The Stormcaller is medieval epic fantasy. With dragons, apparently.

“Isak is a white-eye, born bigger, more charismatic and more powerful than normal men…but with that power comes an unpredictable temper and an inner rage. Feared and despised by those around him, he dreams of a place in the army and a chance to live his own life, but the Gods have other plans for the intemperate teenager. Isak has been Chosen as heir elect to the brooding Lord Bahl, the white-eye Lord of the Farlan.”

Same rules as last month – UK/EU only, owing to postage. Leave a comment below, saying which book you’d like (or either, if so inclined!), before the first Saturday of March. Please use a valid email address in the comment form so I can contact you to get your snail-mail address if you win (don’t put either in your comments, for security reasons!).

Good luck!

The Great 2011 Book Giveaway

To celebrate the completion of my novel (and kick this blog back into life), I’m going to be giving away not one but two books every month this year!

Please note: Sorry, but you must live in the UK or EU to enter. Some of the books are quite heavy and would cost too much to ship overseas.

One book will be on the craft of writing, the other will be fiction – generally a freebie from a convention that, although good, is too far outside my tastes to make it onto my crowded TBR pile. The month’s selection will be posted on the first Saturday, starting today, Saturday 1 January, and you’ll have until the next giveaway post to leave a comment and be eligible for the prize draw.

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This month’s giveaways

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman

This is a great little book that ought to be on every aspiring writer’s shelf. The main reason I’m giving it away is because I’ve pretty much absorbed all the advice by now! From basic problems like too many adverbs, through awkward dialogue and uneven pacing, Lukeman covers pretty much everything that could give agents and editors a reason to turn down your manuscript. (Note: this book is slightly water-damaged at the bottom, but no pages are stuck together and it’s still perfectly readable.)

Slights, by Kaaron Warren

Kicking off the year’s fiction giveaway is this disturbing serial-killer novel from Australian author Kaaron Warren, published by Angry Robot Books. Not my cup of tea at all, but hopefully someone out there will cherish it!

“After an accident in which her mother dies, Stevie has a near-death experience, and finds herself in a room full of people – everyone she’s ever pissed off. They clutch at her, scratch and tear at her. But she finds herself drawn back to this place, again and again, determined to unlock its secrets. Which means she has to die, again and again.

And she starts to wonder whether other people see the same room… when they die.”

To be in with a chance of receiving either of these, just leave a comment below, saying which one you’re interested in!