Title: The Powder Mage Trilogy (Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, The Autumn Republic)
Author: Brian McClellan
Date Started: March 12, 2015 Date Finished: April 7, 2015
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★
Every book has a story: I learned of the first book in trilogy, Promise of Blood, in an interview with Brian McLellan on Chuck Wendig’s blog right when the book came out. I didn’t have to read any of the interview to be convinced this was a book I needed to read, though. As soon as I saw the cover with an old soldier slouching in a throne, a rifle in his hand, blood pooling at his feet, with the tagline “The age of kings is dead… and I have killed it,” I knew I needed to read this book. Yet, for all the impact of that first impression, I somehow never got around to reading it. I say “somehow” as if it were two years worth of accidents and bad timing, but now I’m convinced it was serendipity. When I finally picked Promise of Blood off my bookshelf in March, it turned out that the third and final book had been published only month prior. I could read the whole trilogy if I wanted! And I burned through the like wildfire. Or like a Privileged with an aptitude with fire.
… the man’s brown eyes left no question that he’d led armies on the battlefield. There was a single pistol, hammer cocked, on the stair next to him. He leaned on a sheathed small sword and watched as a stream of blood slowly trickled down each step, a dark line on the yellow-and-white marble.
A completed series seems to be a rare bird in contemporary fantasy these days. Part of that is on me, for picking up every latest thing as soon as it comes out. Even then, I don’t always continue on to subsequent books in a series after I read the first one. The last time I remember consuming a trilogy like this was when I read Lord of the Rings in the eighth grade. For The Powder Mage Trilogy, I was more than happy to lug around 600-page hardcover books for a month. I turned into the ultimate biblio-hermit, with my nose in a book every chance I got. The tale of Field Marshal Tamas’ coup had me hooked from the start, but as the story grew in conflicts and characters and magic, I became addicted.
The Kingdom of Adro has been abused by its royals for long enough, and we enter the story just as Field Marshal Tamas, longtime head of the Adran military and seemingly loyal servant of the king, has executed his coup. The Royal Cabal of magical Privileged are dead. The king and what royalists remain are being gathered for execution. And as the city of Adopest descends into anarchy, our characters converge and separate for what will become a long and difficult war not only between men, but between gods.
This is my first experience with flintlock fantasy (please comment with any worthy recommendations!), but I have no reason to believe that the balance of magic systems in these books is anything less than spectacular. Privileged have skills in elemental magic, wearing special gloves to harness the Else they touch with their fingers. Knacks have specific aptitudes–one of our heroes, Adamat, has a perfect memory that he uses in his work as a private investigator; another character, Olem, never sleeps. And Powder Mages, so marked by the silver powder keg pins they wear on their uniforms, control gunpowder, whether it is their own to have supernatural prowess with their guns, or their enemies’ to cause large catastrophic explosions or even to blow up powder charges in people’s pockets–Powder Mages even consume gun powder as a kind of energy boost.
“You gorged them on the blood of the nobility… They drank, but were not filled. They ate of hatred and grew hungrier. Your intentions were… well, not pure, but just. Justice is never enough.”
Still, the magic is second to the realistic brutality of the warfare that spreads across these novels. Long marches, sieges, guerilla attacks, civil war. Perhaps the magic is even third: the growth and challenges of characters as they fight and survive is as gripping as anything else. Small, personal moments in the midst of catastrophes. An incredibly complicated relationship between father and son. Friendships tested by commands. Civilians thrust from the sidelines into violence. A strange man who makes a mean pot of soup.
There were, perhaps, a few too many characters with plot armour on. Cruel mistress as I am, I would have struck a killing blow in the instances were my heart was broken only to be conveniently taped back together a few pages later. And there was a certain relationship woven through all three novels that I felt had its strongest moment in the first book and never quite reached that pinnacle again.
The Powder Mage Trilogy rather ruined me for books that came after. Nothing has quite held my attention since then. Nothing is quite exciting enough, quite brutal enough, quite gunpowder-y enough. (I think I’ve been giving swords way too much credit over the years.) Nothing else has Field Marshal effing Tamas in it! This series certainly guaranteed that I’ll be reading anything else Brian McLellan writes in the years to come, and that my fantasy reading habits have become a little more trigger happy.