Promise of Blood (Powder Mage Series #1)
The king is dead, the sorcerers who helped enforce his rule are either dead or hunted, and a new group of people with a form of magic that's based around firearms and black powder are taking over. But, as always with a coup, there are problems aplenty in the aftermath.
The king is dead and his Privileged cabal of sorcerers are being challenged by a new cabal with new magic, based around firearms. The Privileged want to eradicate the Powder Mages, the Powder Mages want to take the Privileged off their pedestals, and one person wants to bring back a god so he can keep his promise to the kings.
This is a book I really wanted to fall in love with. I mean, magic-involving, olde-style, black powder firearms? Heck yes, gimme some of that! Unfortunately, a great concept is marred by somewhat less than stellar execution. It’s still a pretty good read, but it could have been a really great read.
Violence: Lots of violence, including firearms, and occasional torture.
Sexual Content: References to adultery and harems are fairly common. There are also occasional references to homosexuality.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Alcohol is spoken of and consumed fairly often. For Powder Mages, black powder acts as a drug and can be addictive, and that addiction is mentioned a few times.
Spiritual Content: The Kresim Church is the major religious force in the nation of Adro, where most of the story takes place. They worship the god Kresimir, but the leadership of the church is hopelessly corrupt and decadent.
Language/Crude Humor: There are, as mentioned, references to harems and bedding women, but no swearing. The term “pit” seems to have replaced the h-word.
Other Negative Content: Torture is used as a means of obtaining and verifying information.
Positive Content: The goal of the coup (a violent overthrow of government) that happens immediately prior to the start of the book is to remove a king and set up a ruling council, for the stated purpose of bringing power to the people. Call it a first step in going from monarchy to democracy.
Promise of Blood starts off tossing the reader right into the middle of a mystery. A former police investigator, who now does the same thing for private clients (not the only similarity to our modern world, more on those later) is called to the palace and discovers the aftermath of the coup. The leader of the coup, Tamas, asks the investigator to find the meaning of a phrase some of the victims of the coup uttered as they were dying.
There is a certain charm to a book that throws you headlong into the deep end and lets you figure it out as you go along, and the author does this very well. We follow the stories of three main characters. Tamas himself, the leader of the coup and a Field Marshal in the army of Adro; Taniel, Tamas’ son; and Adamat, the investigator mentioned earlier, as they deal with the aftermath of the coup, including trying to identify traitors amongst the conspirators and stave off invasion from a neighboring nation.
The author has a definite feel for how to keep a reader interested by giving out little bits and pieces of information as the story progresses. There are no big info dumps and you’re left to figure it out from the clues he reveals throughout the book. The story even includes a couple of real mysteries, as Adamat tries to find out the meanings of an obscure phrase and then later determine who the traitor in the new Cabal is. The story almost has the feeling of a mystery with a fantasy setting, though there is a lot more going on than just the mysteries.
Along with private investigators and firearms (primitive barrel-loading rifles and pistols), some other things that will be familiar to modern readers are newspapers, printing presses, and trade unions. The overall picture, as far as I can tell, is a world moving away from sorcery and towards industrialization, along with a battle between two different types of magic users.
That brings us to the different kinds of magic. We see at least four in the first book, which I’d class as one minor type, two major types, and one that is largely a mystery, based on the descriptions given. The minor magic is called being Knacked, or having a Knack. This seems to be defined as having one single special ability. For example, Adamat the investigator has a Knack of a perfect memory, he can remember absolutely everything he’s ever seen or heard, apparently. Another Knacked character has no need to sleep, which leads to him being hired as a bodyguard. The first major magic users are the sorcerers, called the Privileged. They appear to wield a largely elemental magic, and they wear gloves that indicate what element they are best at working with. The Privileged are just what the name implies — they’ve always been the elites, and very often the powers behind the various thrones. The second group of magic users are the Powder Mages, also called the Marked. They have various powers centered around firearms and black powder. They can inhale or ingest black powder to enter a “powder trance,” which gives them heightened senses, pain resistance, and other abilities. They can also set off charges of powder at a distance and “float” bullets farther than even modern weapons can propel them, with pinpoint accuracy. The fourth magic system, which we see only from one practitioner, seems to have similarities to what we’d call voodoo, complete with little dolls. It may be the most powerful magic system, or perhaps the lady that uses it is simply a very strong mage, but she does manage to kill a number of Privileged with her magic.
A major theme of the story is the feud between the Privileged and the Marked. The Privileged look down on the Marked and at least one promises that Kresimir will destroy all Marked, which he thinks would be a very good idea. The Marked, for their part, are tired of being put down by the Privileged and are beginning to flex their own muscles. Both Tamas and Taniel are Powder Mages, and one of Tamas’ stated reasons for the coup is to replace the Privileged Cabal with a Marked Cabal.
Now, I admit to being fascinated with new and different systems of magic, but there are things about this book that made me cringe. First off, Tamas is, to put it mildly, a world-class jerk. He sends his own son, Taniel, to kill his best friend Bo, who happens to be a Privileged. I, personally, call that cold. He also admits to arranging marriages between Marked in order to breed more Powder Mages, including one that breaks Taniel’s heart.
Second, some of the characterizations don’t seem to work very well. For example, we have a doctor who seems to go from “surgery might kill the patient” to “okay, let’s go ahead and operate” pretty quickly based on my experience with doctors (full disclosure, I work for the local hospital so I know quite a few doctors personally). It just struck me as a sudden change of mind, and not in keeping with any of the doctors I know. Most doctors, if new information comes to light that changes their mind about something, will at least make a comment like, “Well, that changes the situation.” It makes sense for the doctor to explain his change of heart because if the patient dies there’s a really good chance he’ll end up hanged.
Also, the ending of the book is really pretty anticlimactic. We get told over and over during the story that Kresimir is going to return to the planet and set things right, which is one of the major sources of tension in the story. Then when he appears, he is defeated, honestly, without a lot of fireworks or even much of a fight. Come on, if you’re going to have humans battling gods, at least make them good battles! The fights between the Powder Mages and Privileged we see are more exciting than the fight between a Powder Mage and a god. What this means, if you apply logic, is that the Privileged were more powerful than their gods were, which kinda makes me scratch my head.
For Christians, there are other potential issues. There are references to multiple gods, and also speculation that what they call gods are just very powerful sorcerers, which could be disturbing to some Christians. Honestly, I kind of took those in stride given the nature of fantasy fiction, but one of the leaders of the Kresim church is mentioned as having orgies at his mansion, which also houses a chapel — which is a much bigger problem for most Christians, I believe.
Overall, it was a fairly enjoyable read despite the problems, and I will probably return to read the second and third books, just to find out how the Powder Mages deal with the problems coming their way. I guess I’d summarize it by saying it’s a great concept, just that the execution was a little lacking.
+ Fascinating new system of magic involving black powder firearms.
+ Strong mysteries sprinkled throughout the story.
+ Some of the main characters appear to be very honorable people, even though it causes them pain.
- Church leaders depicted as corrupt and even having orgies.
- Big leadup leads to a disappointing conclusion.