Monday, 6 May 2013

The Outcast Blade

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Orbit (orbitbooks.net)
978-1-84149-847-8

The Outcast Blade is the second ‘act’ of The Assassini, an alt-historic fantasy focusing on the political and romantic intrigues of 15th-century Venice; it follows on from The Fallen Blade, which I didn’t really enjoy, and is considerably more assured than its predecessor.

The Venice of the time was Europe’s richest city, grown fat on the trade between east and west. Grimwood’s version is equally well-off, if significantly more vulnerable militarily. Venice’s navy has been all but wiped out defending Cyprus against Egypt’s Malmuk Sultanate in the previous book; that the Sultanate was equally mauled in the exchange is little comfort to Venice’s ruling Council of Ten, because now it finds itself caught between two rival powers, the inheritors of ancient Rome.

To the north, the Holy Roman Empire of Sigusmund; and out of Constantinople to the east, the waning but still formidable Byzantine Empire. As The Outcast Blade begins, both empires lay claim to the recently-widowed Giulietta Millioni and her son Leo; Guilietta is cousin of Venice’s childless, unmarried and imbecilic Duke, and her son will most likely be his heir.

Both empires dispatch prospective husbands to Venice, to vie for Guiletta’s hand and secure the Ducal throne; that both princes come with a sizeable army for escort is not lost on the city state’s warring Regents, though their plans to turn the situation to their advantage have little in common.

Little, that is, but the instrument of those plans: Tycho, the eponymous ‘blade’ of the title. Newly knighted following his tide-turning intervention in the naval battle off Cyprus, the former slave and trained assassin is more concerned with wooing Guilletta for himself. But the Millioni princess wants nothing to do with him, having convinced herself he let her husband die at sea.

That’s five paragraphs and 300 words or so to set the scene, and I haven’t even touched on the fantastic aspects of the series. This is detailed, complicated stuff – as you might expect from a novel so concerned with intrigue, and sometimes it can be a little hard to keep together in your head, but Grimwood does an excellent job of folding the details into his tightly-wound plot so the action rarely suffers an expository emergency stop. With alternative histories you never know quite how much is fact and how much fiction until you knuckle down and hit Wikipedia yourself, but the novel appears thoroughly researched and well-grounded in the complex realpolitik of the period.

And it’s politics which drives the action here – intrigue and romance, and the blurry line that divides the two. Medieval Venice is where the philosophy of vendetta* was first dreamed up, and it sometimes seems as if everyone in the city must be walking around with their hand on the hilt of a hidden blade. Nobody trusts anyone, sex is cheap and life cheaper, and arguments over the former seem often to shorten the latter – at least for one of the parties involved.

Which brings us neatly back to Tycho, the point at which politics, sex and violence collide. The young knight is… well, he doesn’t know what he is, but his aversion to sunlight and hankering for the lifeblood of young women makes it pretty clear to the reader. Grimwood never writes the word, however, and does a decent job of keeping the hoary old clich├ęs of vampire lore relatively fresh. In Venice, a city half underwater, old of the older and more commonly neglected tropes – that vampires are loath to cross running water – has a major impact on Tycho’s existence, but his supernatural speed and strength makes him one of Venice’s most powerful assets… if he can be controlled.

Not least of all by himself.

Tycho aside, the novel’s third pillar – fantasy – is played down nicely. While the vampire knight/assassin seems a walking nexus of the weird, outside of his personal twilight zone the fantasy is as grounded and gritty as its politics - and well-integrated with same.

Alexa, mother and Regent to Venice’s Duke, has a little power herself which she mostly uses to keep track of political rivals, and she knows more about Tycho than she’s telling; her brother-in-law and fellow Regent Alonzo relies on his hired alchemist for support. The Byzantines have their magi, meanwhile, and Emperor Sigusmund has his Krieghund: a brotherhood of werewolves more in the American Werewolf in London vein – grotesque, agonising transformations and all – than the neutered puppies of Twilight.

The difficulty of the Krieghund’s transformation is emblematic: magic in the Assassini series does not come without difficulty, without pain. The relative rarity of the fantastic, and its high cost for all involved, goes some way to explaining why the setting hasn’t diverged too significantly into unicorns and magic missiles; together with the Pope’s** traditional dislike for witches and ‘demons’, it’s a cost which has kept ensured even Venice’s rulers keep their magical dabbling to a minimum.

The Fallen Blade suffered somewhat from having to lay the groundwork for its setting. Its sequel is able to build on that foundation, giving it a little more freedom to breathe, and the novel is much the better for it. I’m still not massively enamoured of Grimwood’s style, however. He has a tendency to plonk ugly, broken fragments of sentence down on the page with little grace, almost as if they occurred to him as an afterthought:
A visit from Lady Giulietta followed by a summons from her uncle. Both in their way his self-declared enemies. And Alexa had not been in touch since he admitted to Giulietta that she’d asked him to watch out for her. (p.111)

It’s a stylistic choice you might expect from someone writing a Chandler pastiche, all quick cuts and short, unvarnished sentences, and what works for 40s noir doesn’t necessarily work for medieval pseudohistory. It feels too modern, and every time I stumbled across another fragment it took me abruptly out of the book.

Grimwood’s Venice would make a fine noir setting, however; for all its surface beauty the city is dirty, dangerous, amoral and utterly corrupt. It features less than in the first novel, but city’s darkness is made more apparent by being thrown into contrast against an extended, idyllic pastoral sequence which resembles nothing so much as the Sicillian interlude in The Godfather. Tycho’s exile is rural, peaceful and blissful; and Grimwood does well to keep it engaging, playing off the fact that we know it cannot last.

Sure enough, Tycho’s back in Venice before too long and on a collision course with the powers threatening the city. The final climactic confrontation is pretty awesome, outdoing The Fallen Blade’s naval engagement in tension and coherence, if not in scale. The final resolution feels like something of a cheat, however; while it’s a long way from the overblown deus ex machina which destroyed the Mamluk fleet in the series’ first book, The Outcast Blade again confirms that Tycho’s not so much playing with a stacked deck as making up the rules as he goes along.

Characterisation is good, particularly of the story’s women, and the interplay between the characters feeds through nicely into the various intrigues, giving them extra depth and heft. The novel can sometimes be frustratingly opaque, however. There’s a fairly blurred boundary between subtlety and incomprehensibility, between delighted surprise and its frustrated counterpart, and The Outcast Blade often falls the wrong side of the line – particularly in the big dramatic moments, when violent reversals can leave you blinking, unable to shake a sense of ‘where the hell did that come from…?’

While The Outcast Blade‘s refusal to play fair with its readers is a pretty damaging flaw, the rich, inky-black atmosphere and scrupulously well thought-out blend of historic and fantastic elements makes it worth the read. I’ll definitely pick up the third (and presumably final) book in the series when that emerges, in the hope that this time the storytelling can live up to the setting Grimwood has created. Third time’s the charm, they say.

* Although I didn’t get that far down Wikipedia’s ‘History of Venice’ page, so this may not be true. The Godfather would certainly seem to disagree.
** Popes plural, actually; at this point in history there are two, and ‘magic is bad’ seems to be about the only thing they agree on.




This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com