A Promise Of Blood

Cover: UK Kindle edition

Author: Brian McClellan
Series: The Powder Mage Trilogy (Book 1)
Edition: Kindle (Amazon UK)
Publisher: Hachette Digital
Published: April 16th, 2013

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.
It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…

Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces. 

It’s up to a few…

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved…
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

This debut novel from Brian McClellan is one of those personal favourite types of book for me – the kind I could hardly stand to put down. From the main characters, at once both flawed and sympathetic, to the unfolding of a plot thick with suspense and intrigue, this book gripped me from start to finish. Not least of the reasons it stands out from the 2013 crowd, however, is the uniqueness of its magical premise.


Powder mages are magically gifted marksmen, who have the ability to use gunpowder to add extra power to their attacks and, by ingesting it, improve their senses and the sharpness of their aim. This approach to a magic system is practically genius in its conception, yet also in its simplicity – it’s hard to imagine now why no one has come up with it before.

It certainly helps to add spectacle to the battle scenes in the book, but what I liked most about it is the subtler way it adds layers to the story and the characters who employ it. Taniel, the estranged son of the man responsible for the coup which kicks off the story, uses too much powder… The strain on his relationship with Tamas is clear from the beginning, even with physical distance put between them as each man goes about his own business in the events following the coup in Adro. Taniel has earned his reputation as a Marked – a powder mage of great skill – but it doesn’t stop him resenting his father for the emotional distance between them as a result. That said, I found myself sympathetic with both men by the end of the book, which is quite a feat for the writer to have achieved.

My sympathy for Tamas stems not only from his ‘best intentions at heart’ approach to raising Taniel as a Marked, but from the sheer amount of pressure he’s soon put under as a leader. Tamas is heavily reliant not only on his own power but on the strength of his militia – and as the pressure on him builds, and the danger from a traitor among his allies grows, Tamas begins to let his short temper, as well as his far less wavering pragmatism, guide his decisions. Those decisions naturally have consequences, and while his actions are understandable, those consequences don’t bode well for Tamas or for the future of his homeland. He does what he does out of love for his country and a desire to preserve it, but again the choices he makes are perhaps not the best ones for everyone involved. His personal strength is unquestionable – despite the odds, Tamas never seems to waver from his cause. This is an admirable thing, but what will be the ultimate cost?

Another factor in why I liked this book so much is that the coup itself is not the goal of the story – it’s the spark to a fuse, but the story focuses more on everything that happens afterward, who is involved and why, and how far they will all go to realise their goals. For all of Tamas’s allies do have their own agenda, and a lot of the suspense in the book stems from the fact that Tamas becomes less sure which, if any, of them he can still trust as their war progresses and his own position gets shakier. So many stories centred upon uprisings or military coups like this one start and end with the coup itself, so to see McClellan take a less-beaten path and show us what can happen after the fact is as refreshing as the unique magic system he uses. (It’s worth noting that another of my favourites for this year so far, Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter, takes a very similar approach to its story…)

So, to sum up before I start to gush and/or spoil something, this book is definitely a worthy addition to the Big Deals of fantasy novels in 2013. It’s a wonderfully solid debut, and promises many big things for the next installment. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something different from their fantasy fix.

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