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Thursday, February 24, 2011


Plot Type: UF, HIS
Ratings:  V-5; S-3; H-2
Publisher and Titles: Orbit
      The Fallen Blade: Act 1 of the Assassini (2011)
      The Outcast Blade: Act 2 of the Assassini (3/2012)
      The Exiled Blade: Act 3 of the Assassini (4/2012)

     This post was revised and updated on 2/8/13 to include a review of the second book in the series, The Outcast Blade. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1:

          BOOK 2:  The Outcast Blade          
    I apologize for being so late in reviewing this bookit just slipped by me. As the second part of the trilogy opens, Tycho, Lady Giulietta, and baby Leo are arriving back in Venice with the remains of their troops after having beaten back the Mamluks (in the thrilling battle that climaxed book 1). Unfortunately, that battle also resulted in the loss of most of the Venetian navy. Murderous Venetian intrigue begins immediately when an attempt is made to murder all of the weary travelers while they are having dinner on their first night back. Tycho has a premonition of the explosion that destroys the banquet hall in which they are dining, so he is able to get Giulietta, Leo, Lady Desdaio, and Lord Atilo to safety. Although Tycho is certain that Alonzo is responsible for the explosion, he can't prove it, so the Council of Ten rules that it was caused by outside terrorists.

     The plot follows the complex intrigues of Alonzo and Alexa as both strive for full power over Venice. Also part of the mix are two suitors for the hand of Giulietta, who is now a widowher husband, Leopold, having been killed in the Mamluk battle. The first suitor is Prince Nikolaos, nominated by John V Palaiologos (aka the Basilius, ruler of the Byzantine Empire). The second suitor is Prince Frederick, half-brother of Leopold and bastard son of Sigismund (aka Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany). Both the Basilius and Sigismund view this marriage as a way to add Venice to their growing empires.

     Much of the story follows the ongoing relationship of Tycho and Giulietta as they proceed down their bumpy romantic road in an almost soap-opera-esque manner. Throughout most of the story, Giulietta behaves like a brat, shrilly denouncing Tycho for cowardice because he did not save Leopold, accusing him of dallying with Desdaio, and generally shouting and screaming at him for any painful element of her life. We are meant to understand that under all of Giulietta's rage is the fire of true love, but it's hard to discern even a spark of affection until nearly the end of the book.

     The plot lines in this book are drawn more simply than in book 1 because this time it all comes down to Giulietta and her baby: Will everyone accept Leopold as Leo's fathereven if it's in name only? Will Giulietta marry again, and if so, who will be her groom? Will she forgive Tycho and stop throwing her childish tantrums? Will Giulietta ever overcome the spell that keeps her from speaking the name of Leo's biological father? What will be Tycho's and Alexa's reactions if they learn the identity of that villain?

     One story line with connections to the Tycho-Giulietta romance is a take-off on Shakespeare's Othellocomplete with murderous Moor, deceitful ally, innocent wife, and incriminating handkerchief. The Iago character and the Desdemona character even have similar names: Iacopo and Desdaio. The horrific resolution of this side story plays out like a play within a play, with a twist to the ending that implicates Tycho.

     The story is rife with references to spiders and poison, both real and metaphorical. For example, Prince Marco is portrayed as "an ungainly spider" shortly before he is poisoned with an adulterated plum. Marco uses spider imagery to communicate with his mother. Alexa uses her scrying bowl to watch Alonzo plot against Atilo and muses that "the poison flower was unfolding."

     Once again, the author steeps his story in wonderful descriptions of Venice that reflect both its grimly disturbing street scenes and the malignancy of its upper class:

     "The palace of the Millioni was the grandest in Europe. A confection of cream and pink supported on an elegant colonnade of marble, and positioned alongside the open expanse of lagoon, Ca' Ducale was built from bits of other buildings stolen from all over the Mediterranean. In that fact could be read the entire history of Duchess Alexa's adopted city." (p. 24)

     "The narrow canal...was edged by a mean quayside that crumbled into green and stinking water. The bridge over it was rickety, made from wood that was rotting....The houses...were old, their thin red brick left unplastered. In a...covered passage...two children rutted against a wall. A better choice than the crowded tenement their families undoubtedly shared, where every ecstasy would be accompanied, like as not, by jeers." (p. 59)

     "The owner of the barge stank even at a distance. He stank with the vigour of a man who spent six days each week up to his waist in excrement."  (p. 152)

     This is a strong mid-piece in a fascinating trilogy. Characterization remains strong (except for Giulietta's annoying brattiness), and the ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger. We know that Alonzo will not go off into the wilderness quietly, so book 3 will undoubtedly be a violent depiction of his vengeance against Alexa, Giulietta, andespeciallyTycho. If you are tired of the same old urban fantasy, try this series for its fresh take on the genre.

    Set in an alternate Venice in the early 1400s, this series combines a compelling story line, fascinating characters, and an authentic sense of place. Although the cast of primary characters is quite large, if you can just hold on through the first third of the book, you will have met them all and you'll be in for a great pay-off.  Since this is the first book in the trilogy, Grimwood must, of course, introduce us to all of the major players:

The Millioni Family (seemingly modeled after the Medici family of Florence):  
Marco IV, known popularly as Marco the Simpleton: is the direct descendant of Marco Polo and is now the titular Duke of Milan; usually off in a dream world, but has a few periods of lucidity that contribute heavily to the plot. In book 2, we learn the real cause of his odd behavior. 
Lady Giulietta: cousin to Marco IV 
Duchess Alexa:  mother of Marco IV; possesses magical powers (she evokes thoughts of Lucrezia Borgia)Prince Alonzo: brother-in-law of Alexa and Regent of Venice
Members of the Venetian Court:  
Atilo: a Moor who was an adviser to the late Marco III and is now head of the Assassini (Venice's secret assassins) 
Lady Desdaio: daughter of a member of the Council of Ten, the inner council that  rules Venice under the duke 
Prince Leopold: the German emperor's bastard son and the secret leader of the Wolf Brothers (werewolves, who are called krieghunds in this world) 
Dr. Crow: alchemist, and astrologer with magical powers who serves the duke 
A'rial: the Duchess Alexa's child stregoi (witch)
     Also playing key roles are two of Atilo's servants, some street children, and some officers and men of the Customs Office. 

     The most important character, and the one who ties the plot together, is the beautiful, pale-skinned, silver-haired Tycho, who is described by Grimwood as "a seventeen-year-old boy with strange hungers." The story begins with Tycho in captivitychained to a wall with silver-lined shackles. Aha! You're beginning to figure out just who, or what, Tycho is. Here are a few more of his traits: extremely sun sensitive, sees in the dark, is strongly affected by the moon, can't cross water, has super strength, and can climb tall buildings in a single bound. Although no one actually labels Tycho as such, we can probably assume that he is a vampire. Tycho himself doesn't know what he is or where he came from. His only memory is living as a child slave in Vinland and then waking up 100 years later in captivity in the Middle East.

          BOOK 1:  The Fallen Blade          
     As the plot of the first book unwinds, Lady Giulietta is about to be sent off to Cyprus to an unwanted, politically expedient marriage. Before the wedding can take place, Giulietta tries to run away; has a brief, accidental meeting with Tycho; and is snatched up by kidnappers. In the meantime, Lady Desdaio doesn't want her father to force her into a political marriage, so she runs away to live in the house of her lover, Atilo.  

     The rest of the plot follows the Millioni family members as they plot malevolently against one another, search for Giuletta, and eventually become involved in a war with the Mamluks. Since Tycho has fallen in love with Giuletta at first sight, he is also searching for her, but his search is interrupted when he is captured by Alexa and Atilo and forced to become one of the Assassini. Meanwhile, Giuletta meets  Leopold, who also falls in love with her. The book ends with a huge sea battle, complete with mage fire, vampire intervention, and a storm called up by a witch. 

     Are you still with me?  Really, the events play out so quickly and logically that the plot itself will pull you through to the end, which, by the way, is definitely not predictable and which provides a lead into the second book.

     The descriptions of street life in 15th century Venice are fascinating. That world was filled with extreme poverty and squalor for the common people, and Grimwood's descriptions make you smell the stink of the tanneries and the fetid odors of the sewage-filled canals.  Also authentic in feel is the description of the political intrigue and backroom dealing of the aristocrats, as well as the constant fear felt by everyone, from street urchins to members of the courtnever knowing whether you will lose your life because of a misspoken word or an inadvertent action, even if you didn't actually speak the word or do the deed. 

     Grimwood includes several extras: a map of his Venice, a Millioni family tree, an annotated list of the major characters, and an interview in which he discusses the ASSASSINI world, including a few hints about Tycho's history and his probable future.

     This series is not your usual urban fantasy. It's much more literary and much more complex, with its large cast of characters and its mixture of fantastically twisted historical fact and supernatural magic. I can't wait for the second book!

     Warning: If you are squeamish, please note the high violence rating. The story includes frequent physical violence and scenes of torture, with some extremely gory details.

Here is a quotation that gives a visceral feel for the squalid street life in Grimwood's Venice: "White men, black men, yellow men. A dozen face shapes and twice as many languages....Night soil men carried waste to barges bound for the mainland. Butchers slaughtered pigs, working under canvas to protect them from the drizzle....Awnings or not, the dirt beneath the butchers' feet still turned to slop from the blood, guts and excrement that spilled from the swine, along with their lives. Whores swore, splashing water between sore thighs as brothels closed or shifts changed. Losers staggered from gaming houses, having mortgaged already mortgaged houses, as card sharps shook aces from their sleeves, and rolled loaded dice for that day's luck, knowing that it was already secure." (pp. 188-189)

1 comment:

  1. Alonzo is Alexa's brother-in-law, not her brother.