Act 1 of The Assassini by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
I read The Fallen Blade a while ago, and I’ve just picked up the sequel, The Outcast Blade.
I admit he had me at ‘fantasy renaissance Venice’. He had me twice at that glorious, eerie cover art. And this series definitely delivers – so long as you’re prepared to work for it.
This is what you might call ‘high-brow fantasy’. With no disrespect intended, as I place myself firmly in the ranks of low-brow fantasy authors. What I mean is: it’s written in a more ‘literary’ style than the kind of paranormal romance or female-focused UF that typically comes out of NY. No instant gratification here. And no being beaten about the head with character motivations.
The central character, Tycho, is a monster. We’re not sure what kind, to begin with, and neither is he. But something is clearly wrong with him. We begin with him walled up in a tiny prison compartment on a ship, for reasons he doesn’t understand. People want to kill him, capture him, make him their ally or their slave. We meet dukes, soldiers, enemy caliphs, secret societies of magical assassins and wolf-men, conniving princes and feisty young heroines of every flavour. The political machinations are worthy of A Song of Ice and Fire, with shades of The Borgias and Assassin’s Creed II. There are no good guys and bad guys. There are just guys. And monsters, who act like what they are: unhuman.
Tycho himself is fascinating: tough yet strangely innocent, hungry and amoral yet desperately romantic. The author’s Venice is smelly, colourful and dangerous, but it’s elusive. It isn’t written the way you’d imagine, with an in-your-face fantasy world where everyone knows who’s who in the zoo and the rules are firmly established from the beginning.
Instead, the truth is drip-fed, mainly through the eyes of Tycho, who has no idea what’s going on, and the main heroine, a young noblewoman named Giulietta, who has barely set foot outside her father’s house until now. They’re unreliable narrators at best.
What is actually going on? We’ll have to keep reading to find out. The Fallen Blade is a welcome, gimmick-free change from mainstream UF or historical fantasy. It’s subtle, and sometimes maddening, but well worth the effort.