Promise of blood is the first installment of the Powder mage trilogy by Brian McClellan. It’s a series I have mixed feelings about even though I really enjoyed it.
The powder mage trilogy is, alongside The shadow campaigns, one of the most visible examples of what is currently being called “flintlock fantasy”. Fantasy novels based in the goings on of 18th and 19th century Europe have been around for a long time, but specifically military novels focusing on the era are a more recent phenomenon. That the subgenre got a name when authors started writing books “full of machismo”* probably says something about the types of fans who obsess over genre labels and/or the biases of publishers.
*I’m paraphrasing a blurb here
Field Marshal Tamas has just initiated a coup. After overthrowing the government of Adro he must attempt to hold the nation together in the face of an invasion by their neighbor and historical rival, Kez. He also must contend with the possibly fictional curse that befalls the one who murders a sovereign, supposedly invoking the return of the gods.
So how is it?
It was a fun read, and one I recommend without many reservations. There are moments of brazen emotional manipulation but the writing is pleasant enough that it’s not too exhausting. The stories of the three main POV characters are intertwined well, giving all three characters plenty of interesting stuff to do but making each of their contributions sufficiently different to justify the multi-POV style. It’s not a light and fun fantasy novel but manages to avoid reveling in gore. It’s a solid book all around.
Now I’m going to complain about it.
For one, it’s almost too solid. The whole thing has a fantasy-by-the-numbers feel that drags it down somewhat despite the attempt at a more unique premise. I blame Brandon Sanderson, as McClellan is or was a protégé of theirs, and it shows. The magical system is almost uncomfortably close to the magic of Mistborn, and the similarities only become more evident as the series goes on. I’ve written before about how I dislike Sanderson’s approach to magic so I don’t want to harp on it too much here, and if anything McClellan does it better than Sanderson.
Compared to Wexler’s Shadow campaigns series the story doesn’t measure up. This is somewhat unfair, as Wexler is writing a painstakingly detailed depiction of a fantasy version of the French Revolution, while McClellan is writing an exciting action-oriented fantasy series. That the Powder mage trilogy opens with the overthrow of a king and an attempt to form a republic is a similarity that invites comparison and Wexler’s work is far, far superior to McClellan’s in this light.
Another issue is McClellan has created this “just pre-industrial revolution” setting but doesn’t really do anything with it. The action sequences in the Shadow campaigns are heavily informed by the technology and tactical thinking of the time period. McClellan’s action sequences could fit into almost any fantasy setting with minimal adjustment. This isn’t to say that they are bad, but the setting is not nearly as detailed as Wexler’s and so fails in comparison. On its own merits, it’s excellent.
The series is solidly in the military fantasy tradition. What that means is despite opening with a coup d’état, the societal and political repercussions of tearing down an entire government overnight (literally, here) go mostly unexplored. The focus of the story is on the war with Kez, but it’s a noticeable hole in the story.
Of the three main characters, each is operating in a different genre. Field Marshal Tamas is the star of a military novel in the Sharpe style. Taniel Two-Shot is living in the Leatherstocking tales. Inspector Adamat is operating on the “mystery with political overtones” plane. It’s impressive that McClellan is able to weave these three very distinct tones together as well as he does.
There are a couple of weird linguistic quirks here and there. There’s an offhand comment about “the religious right” that seems strange in a world that lacks the cultural context of Montagnards and Girondins. It’s especially out of place since it only shows up once, so I’m assuming it was something that was just overlooked in the editing process.
One last issue: it features yet another occurrence of the “pale skinned red haired pastiche of Native Americans” thing that I keep seeing in certain types of fantasy novels. At this point it’s become something of a red flag for me. I’m not sure if it’s a product of spurious archeological beliefs or just another example of Robert Jordan’s disproportionate influence on the genre but either way I’m tired of it.
I mentioned above that this is a book I recommend wholeheartedly, and that’s true. I enjoyed the series for the vast majority of the reading experience.
Still, the whole thing really is dripping with stereotypically “masculine” energy. This isn’t to say that all the interesting or important characters are men, but the story as a whole boils down to “manly men doing manly things”. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does limit the appeal. Unlike Wexler’s series, I wouldn’t recommend this to somebody who wasn’t a fan of military fiction. I might still cautiously recommend it to someone who generally didn’t read fantasy but enjoyed reading novels set during the Napoleonic era if they seemed interested in branching out.
I’d also recommend it to fans of Brandon Sanderson regardless of military fantasy preferences as it does the pedantic magic thing he advocates very well.