The Fallen Blade: Act 1 of the Assassini (Vampire Assassin Trilogy #1), by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I’ll begin by making it clear that this was a novel I read a) because it was recommended so highly by various people on my Twitter  network, and b) understanding I was entirely out of my comfort zone. 

Despite being an avid fan of both Venetian settings, and vampires (as well as general occult themes), I am woefully under-read when it comes the nightwalkers: their unfortunate relegation to the romantic realms of YA fiction has dampened my enthusiasm for anything vampiric outside of manga and anime. The Japanese just seem to handle vampires better. Much like science-fiction, if you ask me.

Regardless, I wanted to read The Fallen Blade, because I expected it to be a different, intriguing read. I wasn’t disappointed, that’s for sure. Although at times I felt so bewildered it was frustrating.

I’ll clarify: There were aspects that I found lacking, but they are the same things I found wanting in Stephan Deas’ Memory of Flames series thus far. I’ll come back to this later. Furthermore, anything else I’ll pick fault with in the first instalment of the Vampire Assassin trilogy is entirely subjective, and related to the depiction of vampires in general.

What’s apparent from the very beginning, is how theatrical The Fallen Blade is going to be: the “dramatis personæ” is only the first hint, followed by both the detailed family tree, the Shakespeare quote, and finally, the “Part One” proudly heralding the book’s beginning. Theatrics in fantasy are not something I’ve experienced much, outside of The Lies of Locke Lamora. I was expecting something special and exciting when I began.

The Venetian setting is seamless; Grimwood effortlessly captures the magic, squalor and darkness of 15th Century Venice, conveying the glamorous lives of the rich, side-by-side with the hopelessness of the poor. Grimwood’s Venice is alive, pulsating with life and death. And magic.

The pacing is excellent, and The Fallen Blade is definitely a page-turner.

Initially, I was unconvinced. I found it difficult to really become absorbed in the story, because for me, one crucial thing was missing: characterisation. And yet, that isn’t quite right. There is plenty of characterisation, in fact, the characters have quirks and traits and idiosyncrasies in abundance. But what they don’t have are personalities. I found myself attached to and absorbed in the plot itself, but not particularly bothered–for or against–any of the characters. In the entire book, perhaps three characters stand out to me, and these are not the three I initially expected.

Tycho. Tycho is amazing, entirely because of what and who he is. In regards to his character and personality…as with the rest of the cast, there’s little to grow attached to. I like to latch onto the characters I read; I like to learn to love them. I relish nothing more in a story than growing attached to the characters I’m reading about. I only care about Tycho because I have a soft spot for vampires. Of course, Grimwood is artfully vague about what Tycho actually is, and this works: the last thing needed in such a slick, sexy and dark novel is the (unfortunate) misconception that comes with the word “vampire” in fantasy fiction at the moment. The same goes for the krieghund. That they aren’t merely “vampires” and “werewolves” adds a sophistication to the story. There is magic at play, and this very magic permeates the hidden places, the secret places of Venice. The Fallen, and the krieghund are merely part of this.

Desdaio. She’s, quite honestly, wonderful. Whilst she at once fills the role of Othello‘s Desdemona, she is also the most heart-warming character in the book. Her character is one of the most clearly conveyed, and this is probably why I took to her as much as I did. That there’s little to say about her, in no way reflects on her as an uninteresting character. In fact, there’s little to say, because saying she’s well-developed and well-conveyed amidst a cast I found otherwise lacking, conveys just how fantastic she is.

Lady Giulietta. That Grimwood manages to effortlessly convey all the petulance, fear and childish innocence of a girl as young as her, in such a specific setting, only serves to elevate him to a higher pedestal as a writer. There isn’t a second where her character falters; she remains flawless throughout, even as her personality changes in response to the horrors that befall her. Essentially, Grimwood captures her perfectly. Whether in her snobbish, spoilt anger, her bewildered terror, or devastated perseverance, Grimwood writes her seamlessly, with never a jarring moment. I make a point of this, because I know from my own writing how difficult it can be conveying the opposite sex, let alone a frightened young girl. Occasionally when writers portray teenagers and children, their ages can be forgotten in the delivery; this not once happens with Giulietta, even throughout her most womanly and adultly of troubles.

The rest of the cast; I couldn’t care a fig. They could die, slit each other’s throats, and play each other for all they’re worth, if they like (and they probably will). It feels as though it’s none of my business. I’ll be honest; if any one of the three I mentioned is offed (unlikely with Tycho, for obvious reasons, at least at present), I likely won’t care as much as I’ve cared for other characters in  other books.

The character development feels very literary, and whilst this is excellent in regard to clean, sophisticated writing, I can help feeling that it’s lacking. I felt this way after Memory of Flames. I just didn’t care about any of the characters. This is obviously by choice. Grimwood has clearly opted for a dazzling, dark and gritty drama, with a heavier emphasis on fast-paced, sexy theatrics, than who his characters are. Whilst this isn’t my favoured approach to the people whose stories I’m essentially reading about, it works in this instance. It more than works; it wouldn’t be the same without it. Grimwood couldn’t be half as ruthless if he’d presented a cast the reader could actually, deeply care for. (Well, he could….but that would be cruel!)

The fact remains that characterisation is the single fault I could really pick, and even then, I accept that for The Fallen Blade, it works. Other than this, I wasn’t sold on the notion that vampires ‘transform’ into something else, in a similar fashion to how the krieghund do.  This, however, is entirely subjective, and just happens to be because I know how I like my vampires.

All in all, The Fallen Blade really is as good as I’ve heard everyone say. Moreover, it’s different. For a first foray out of my cosy, warm comfort zone, I wasn’t disappointed. The Fallen Blade delivers a pure shot of sophisticated, devilishly wicked dark fantasy at breakneck speed, whilst offering a theatrical, Shakespearean experience that really, truly is “as dark and dazzling as a masquerade”.

Read this book; you will be at once surprised, and delighted.

3.5/5

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