I picked up Promise of Blood from the bargain bin of my local Chapters on a whim. I’ve heard a few people talk about McClellan, but it always involved the French Revolution so I figured it was historical fantasy. But it’s not. At all. I started Promise of Blood and knew I was hooked about a quarter of the way through.
Welcome to Adopest, capital city of Ardo, where Field Marshal Tamas has just enacted a coup and brought down his king.
Guns, Gods, and Steel
This is a world where magic, gunpowder, clocks, printing presses, and power-mad sorcerer-gods all swim in the same pool. There are three main different types of magic users: privileged, powder mages, and knacked. While I’m not generally interested in overly explained magic systems, I did enjoy the breakdown of magic here.
Privileged are powerful sorcerers, and access their powers by use of gloves and intricate motions of their hands. Powder mages are like elemental wizards, but instead of ice or fire, they… well, they can manipulate gunpowder. Two of the main characters (Tamas and his son Taniel) are powder mages, using their power to ignite an enemy’s powder from afar, make their bullets travel farther and with more accuracy than other soldiers, or negate powder to make enemy’s shots fail. They can also snort gunpowder like a drug to induce a powder trance, making themselves faster and stronger during combat. The third type are known as knacked, as in, they have a knack. Knacks are generally passive abilities, like being able to tell when someone is lying, having a perfect memory, or not needing to sleep.
Promise of Blood opens with Inspector Adamat ( a knacked with a perfect memory), on his way to meet with Tamas, an old and grizzled field marshal (an also a powder mage). They are in the city of Adopest, capital city of Adro. Tamas has just committed a coup and overthrown his king. It was a bloody battle we only hear about, as Tamas and his powder mages took on the Royal Cabal and killed a bunch of privileged (but of course one escapes, who just happens to have a history with Tamas and his son, Taniel). But with their dying breaths, the privileged create a mystery for Tamas, and he needs Adamat to unravel this unexpected development. With a council in place, Tamas begins a complete overhaul of the country’s government, pushing the people of Adro from a monarchy into a democracy.
This act sets the stage for the rest of the book, and the rest of the trilogy, as we watch Tamas and his council try to navigate the merging of the old world and the new.
The story bounces between a few main characters: Inspector Adamat, Field Marshal Tamas, Tamas’ son Taniel Two-Shot (another powerful powder mage), a young laundress called Nila. There are multiple viewpoints, and I couldn’t really say that any one character is the central or main character. Tamas and Taniel have an equal level of importance to the story, but Adamat definitely comes close, though his story follows a bit of different path.
Character is Key
There is war growing on the horizon, as the neighbouring country of Kez prepares to invade. There is mystery, mythology, sorcery big and small, and some truly great action sequences. But what lies at the heart of the story is the relationships between the characters. No one is alone here, each character is connected to the fate of another. Taniel and Tamas have a stereotypical father/son relationship, but it works so well. Tamas is a father figure to more than just his son, and fights to remain distant to the soldiers in his command. Taniel is set on the path of the last living privileged of the Royal Cabal, who he soon realizes is an old friend. (With Taniel comes my favourite and the most underused character, the tribal sorceress Ka-Poel). Inspector Adamat, whether employed by Tamas or trying to protect his own family as he uncovers the plot against the field marshal, is superb. Unfortunately, Nila doesn’t do much in the first book (though there is quite a bit of tension when she is stuck as Tamas’ laundress), but she is bound to protecting the heir to the dead king. It’s clear that McClellan is just setting the stage to make her something more.
More characters enter into the story as the plot unravels, but the relationships are always key. These people feel real. They love, they feel remorse, they are affected by their actions and the actions of others. They make decisions and mistakes, they take hold of the action and push the plot, even as that plot tries to force their hand and pull them along.
I fully recommend Promise of Blood, though be warned you might just find yourself reading the whole amazing trilogy.