Promise of Blood

Thoughts on Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood

Powder mages in Brian McClellan’s debut novel Promise of Blood are finesse bad-asses.  They can magically ignite gunpowder from a distance, which makes challenging a powder mage to a pistol duel a foolhardy endeavor.  They can expend gunpowder to adjust a shot’s trajectory mid-flight, so they could probably plunk a bullet-dodging Neo.  They can inhale gunpowder to enter what they call a powder trance, a state of being during which the powder mage enjoys heightened senses and extraordinary strength.  However, a powder mage can overindulge, causing a debilitating state known as powder blindness.  One of the four primary point of view characters, Taniel, a skilled powder mage in the Adro military and my favorite character of the novel, tends to overdo it now and then.  He is a flawed character, but heroic.  If there is any single character with whom I could identify, it is Taniel.  He is troubled.  He is fiercely loyal to those he loves and is protective of his comrades in arms.  He yearns for parental approval – don’t we all – yet endeavors to establish himself as a dependable and independent.  Despite this, he is also borderline dependent on powder, constantly using it to resolve or escape difficult situations.  Taniel’s story is of a young man at war with himself as well as with the neighboring nation attempting to invade his homeland.

Powder mages aren’t the only ones with special ability.  Adamat is a retired police inspector, working as a private detective to maintain a living for his family.  His is the Raymond Chandler private eye, dirty underbelly of the city kind of story.  He has a Knack, a lesser class of magical ability, but useful if one knows how to use their Knack.  Adamat has a perfect memory, quite a valuable trait for a detective.  Like these detective stories tend to go, Adamat is working against forces unseen, dangerous and deadly.  In over his head and constantly under threat of harm to himself or his family, he has to work the angles and do what he needs to do to get the job done.  Not bound to anyone but himself, his motive is preservation of self and family, not duty to king or country.  His is the perspective of the regular citizen caught up in the machinations of his nation.

Field Marshal Tamas, an aging powder mage and a commander of the nation’s military, begins the novel having just executed a successful coup d’état, putting the king and the nobility beneath the guillotine’s blade.  It is a brutal act, but necessary.  Right?  His story revolves around the aftermath of his coup as he deals with the fallout of his decisions.  Morality ambiguity is touched upon, perhaps to be further explored in books two or three of this trilogy.  When the life of one’s entire nation is at stake, how far can one go to protect it?  Is executing hundreds morally wrong when those hundreds could put your entire plan at risk?  What if you are wrong?  But aren't the lives of millions worth the lives of hundreds?  Nation leaders across our globe struggle with that question on a daily basis.

There is a fourth P.O.V. character who I feel was under-used.  Nila, a young laundress to a noble family before the coup, is only seen a few times throughout the novel and is present to provide the point of view of those victimized by the coup.  Tamas thinks his coup benefits all, but Nila is proof that it does not.  During the coup, she is attacked by a squad of Tamas’s soldiers and nearly raped. Her employer is executed along with the rest of the nobility so she is left homeless and jobless.  Her story could have been much more effective had more time been spent exploring it.  Perhaps she makes a more meaty appearance in the second book of this trilogy.

I would like to highlight the cover art designed by Lauren Panepinto with photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost.  This is one of the most beautiful and story-appropriate covers I have ever seen.  This is Field Marshal Tamas at the very moment the reader opens the book to read chapter one.  He has overthrown the king, the battle is won.  He sits on the throne in the dark, his flintlock rifle across his knees, disheveled graying hair across his downcast eyes.  He slouches in exhaustion and sorrow. He doesn't wear the crown.  It sits on the floor beside him in a pool of blood, bathed in a single ray of light.   It is night and the room is dark so what is the source of this light?  If it is divine light, then Tamas has more than just angry citizens loyal to the king to deal with.  Simply beautiful artwork.  I adore it.

Promise of Blood is so much fun, fast-paced, and creative.  The supporting characters are well-realized and intriguing, particularly Taniel’s ward, Ka-poel, a young savage with a mysterious and powerful ability. Now I am suffering an OCD struggle. My copy of Promise of Blood is the trade paperback version.  The second book of the trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, is available now in hardcover and isn't available in paperback until 2015.  I want to read book two now, but can’t allow myself to buy it because it will be the hardcover version – which I always prefer – but it will not match the version of book one have on my shelf.  Books in a series have to match, don’t they?  No, it there is no question.  One simply cannot have a trade paperback version of book one, a hardcover version of book two, and a mass market paperback version of book three.  It wouldn't look right.  Back me up here, folks.  Maybe if I snort some gunpowder, I will be granted the superior mental clarity required to think through this dilemma.

Bookthump Bits

More words

  • Check out the author's blog at  He has interesting things to say about online juggernaut Amazon's feud with Brian's publisher Hachette.
  • Brian isn't just supporting his fictional world with traditional novels.  He has written a series of self-published novellas set in the Powder Mage universe, all of which are available for download on your Nook or Kindle or what-have-you.  I don't much care for reading books on a computer screen so my hope is that Hachette will purchase these works and publish them in a collection I can buy at a bookstore.

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  • The author stopped by Sword & Laser for a video chat: 
Uploaded by The Sword and Laser on 2014-02-19.

The Martian

Thoughts on Andy Weir's The Martian

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronaut.  Well, first I wanted to be a fire truck but then astronaut.  As I grew older, it became clear that my brain is not wired for the maths so my toddler dream of becoming an astronaut was quickly scrubbed.  Space exploration still fascinates me from a dreamer’s perspective and this is probably why I appreciate science fiction and speculative fiction so much.

I imagine the pitch room logline for Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian probably was:  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  Then the publisher said something about there already being a movie with that title and the agent deftly redirected with a “yeah, but…” statement.

Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a survival story.  An accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded alone on Mars.  Even on Earth, where we have all of the breathable atmosphere we need, people die when stranded in unfamiliar territory.  Either they lack the skills, the intelligence, or the willpower to survive.  Mark Watney possesses all three in abundance.  Despite numerous setbacks (I could swear Watney was being followed around by Joe Btfsplk), he has to use his vast NASA brain to figure out solutions to problems that would probably kill anyone else.

Watney’s story is told via first person journal entries.  Normally, I do not care for diary/journal-style narrative, but I liked this over a first person continuous narrative because it caused me to wonder if I, as the reader, could possibly be playing the role of a person reading the posthumous account of Watney’s life on Mars.  During each event, I was left to wonder if this was the obstacle that would kill him.  Watney is a brilliant man, but Mars is a hostile environment.  After all, how many disasters can one man survive before his luck runs out?  Andy Weir's use of the journal-style narrative effectively increases the tension.

Mark Watney is a fun, likable character.  He possesses genius-level intelligence, but talks like a regular person.  When he describes the science of what he is doing, he does it in a conversational way, as though he is talking to a group of normals at a cocktail party.  I worried that The Martian would be too hard SF for me, but Andy Weir’s and thus Mark Watney’s skill at describing brainy science hoopie-doo in a way even a nit like me could understand was much appreciated.  Watney also possesses a wonderful sense of humor.  He’d have to, I suppose, to be able to maintain mental stability during such an ordeal.  I would probably lose my mind and panic.  This guy starts ruminating on 70s television while trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in space.  I rooted for him.  I desperately wanted him to live because the world needs more people like him.

The Martian is a great adventure story.  I enjoyed every page and look forward to Andy Weir’s next book.  My mom liked it, too.  I bought a copy for her and we read it together.  She is generally more of a contemporary fiction – Grisham, Patterson, Robb – kind of gal, but she raved about The Martian and about Andy Weir's excellent storytelling.

While I am still not an astronaut, my current vocation does involve lots of math.  I mean, like, I do complex calculations on paper with a pencil and stuff.  It is nothing like what astronauts have to do just to empty their space toilet though, so I’ll continue living vicariously through speculative fiction, especially when it is as good as Andy Weir’s The Martian.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

As the regular readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember, my mother and I started a book club of sorts, the first selection of which was Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  When my mother announced her choice for our next read, she told me she feared the choice would turn me off reading altogether.  I reminded her that the point of book clubs is to be exposed to works to which one might not normally choose to read. I assured her that I was completely open-minded and willing to read anything she suggested.  I think I successfully persuaded her because she shipped her selection to me:  Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I am proud to annouce that I finished the book, despite her doubts.  Point in my favor. However, point in her favor, it is the end of March and she shipped the book to me last October.  Well, maybe that is half a point.  Another half-point against me is that the book is just over two hundred pages long.  When we talked in January, after I told her in December that I saw no reason I couldn't finish before the end of the year, she told me she was afraid this would happen.  There was a bit of a told-you-so tone to the statement. I tried my best to convince her that my delay in finishing had nothing to do with the book itself.  There are several reasons (some might call them excuses) it took me six months to read a tiny two hundred page book, but as Paolo Coehlo once said, “Don’t explain. People only hear what they want to hear.”  I was determined to finish.

After some additional delays, I finally managed to shove all distractions aside and spent a weekend finishing the book.  As a matter of fact, I enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I tend to struggle with 19th century literature – I still haven’t finished Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, into which I stuck a bookmark over a year ago and haven’t returned – but I found Oscar Wilde generally easy to read provided I was not trying to read in bed after a particularly exhausting day at work, which is all of them.  I found Wilde’s prose beautiful, lyrical, smooth.  Some of his dialogue – especially that of my favorite character, Lord Henry Wotton – is snarky, cynical, critical of the Victorian society in which Oscar Wilde lived and I find it humorous that much of what he said in the book absolutely outraged that society.  So much of what caused the outrage seems innocuous now in this age of greater acceptance in which we live, though I suspect a few of his statements would still upset some segments of the modern population.  One such passage that coaxed from me a bark of laughter followed a description of Dorian Gray’s brief dalliance with religion:

“But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system.”

Oscar Wilde states elsewhere, in a critical tone, that “men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”, but I strongly believe that statement regarding religion is the author’s personal opinion on the matter, though it is known that Wilde wanted to join the Catholic Church, only succeeding in doing so upon his deathbed.  I suppose one can appreciate the spirituality of religion while still exercising scientific thought.

The major problem I have with the novel is that I find the titular character so unlikable.  Dorian Gray, a victim of his own beauty and the easy life he enjoyed because of it, is completely spoiled.  Adored by all, desired by many, Dorian wants for nothing.  Wilde uses the dialogue descriptor “he cried” so often to identify Dorian as the speaker that I got the impression Dorian was in a constant state of hysterics.  I pictured him with the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes rolled back, swooning this way and that.  Later, he is a dreadful narcissist and later still, he is darn-near sociopathic.  None of these are positive character traits designed to help the reader relate.  Dorian does experience the most dramatic character arc in the story, though, and I was interested to see what would happen to him even if I didn't think very highly of him.

Had I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a high school literature class, I suspect I would have disliked it.  As an adult, however, I have spent the hours since I finished reading the book organizing my thoughts about it and wanting to read more about it and discuss it with others who have read it.  Fortunately, I am currently taking a road trip to visit my parents - I am in the passenger seat - so I’ll finally get to talk with Mom about it… if she remembers any of it six months later. Driving from Los Angeles to El Paso to visit earns me a bonus point so I win, 2-1.

The Farther Shore

Thoughts on Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore

Novels, indeed any entertainment media, about war tend to fall into one of two categories:  the action-packed hoorah kind or the thought-provoking, realistic kind.  There is a place for both.  The first category is infinitely more entertaining and fulfills the glory-in-war fantasy so many of us have.  The second category is not at all fun to read but is necessary to bring us back down to Earth and remind us that the lives of real people are lost in war.  Matthew Eck’s debut The Farther Shore falls wholly into the second category.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading The Farther Shore, but I am saying it is not a fun book to read, nor do I believe Eck intends for it to be so.  There is a tremendous amount of honesty crammed into this short book.  Eck is a veteran of the United States Army and so I suspect some of the chaos and doubt expressed by the characters come from experience rather than imagination.  The story reminds us that combat is a truly terrible thing, often inglorious.  Death is sudden and sometimes accidental.  The hoorah kind of war story puts the hero in a situation where they are mowing down scores of enemies and high-fiving their squad mates.  In reality, a single incident can weigh heavily on the mind of a soldier who is put in the position of taking a life, often with devastating life-long psychological effects.  Eck doesn’t sugar-coat it.

I would recommend this as mandatory reading for any person on their way to the recruiting office with a glory-in-war fantasy in their head.  If after finishing the novel, they still want to sign up, I will thank them for their sacrifice and service, but I will not criticize any person who reads this book and second-guesses their decision to enlist.  When I was nineteen years old, I had glory fantasies, too.  Through my university’s Army ROTC program, I attended Camp Challenge at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  For six weeks, I and my fellow cadets went through a truncated officer training program learning military tradition, drill, and ceremony, weapons training, field tactics, communication and leadership.  During that time, I was trained to use a variety of weapons and I realized that while firing at pop-up targets is one thing, the thought of putting another human being in my sights and pulling the trigger was something I would not want to do.  Camp Challenge was a no-obligation program so when I returned home, I turned in my boots and thanked Captain Wiersma for the experience.  Had I read The Farther Shore first, I might found something else to do with those six weeks in the summer of 1996.

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

From his author bio:

Matthew Eck enlisted in the Army in 1992 and served in Somalia and Haiti.  He has a BA in English Literature from Wichita State University and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana.

He won the 2007 Milkweed National Fiction Prize for The Farther Shore.

And thank you Matthew Eck, for your service to your country.