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

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  • 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.