Saturday, 5 February 2011
The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
There are books that draw you in from the very beginning, and this is one of them. There is a flow to the story that keeps you turning the pages long after you should have turned off the light and settled down to sleep. The cords of the story are expertly woven, each character's thread - and there are more to follow than Giulietta's and silver-haired Tycho's - reappearing just when the need to discover what has happened to them becomes too insistent to ignore, so that you feel just one more chapter can't be resisted. If it lacks quite the savage brilliance of some of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's earlier books, The Fallen Blade is nonetheless very hard to put down, and as Act One of The Assassini, it promises great things. As usual the characterisation is excellent - he's particularly good at young women - and he has a gift for keeping you absorbed in the dangerous characters as well as the sympathetic ones: they might be brutal, ambitious and ruthless, often charming, sometimes appalling, but their motivation is always understandable and their single-mindedness can even at times seem laudable. In other words, they are complex, multi-faceted individuals, and your interest is held because they seem real and unpredictable.
JCG mostly eschews the long descriptions that some authors use for scene setting - where they are used they are sparing and always advance the action, or your understanding of it, but such description as is included builds a strong sense of place - at times, you can almost smell Venice. There's grandeur here, and squalor, and a cast of warring factions whose allegiances could never be relied upon, liable to turn at the slightest spark. It's an alternate history so close to reality that it's utterly plausible, and the reader slips between the real past and the imagined one as easily as Tycho slips between his real city and the invisible one which shelters him when he is first cast adrift in Venice. Vampires and krieghund seem native to this dark and watery city, where assassins lurk not only on every calle but also in the palazzi of the rulers, and poisoning is the quickest way to get rid of a rival. At the end of the book much about Tycho's nature, too, remains to be revealed - bring on Act Two.