Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Assassini, book 2

Orbit (2012)

ISBN: 9780316074421

Reviewed by Ben Julien

Spoiler alert!

The Outcast Blade is the second of a trilogy (Fallen Blade being the first book), an alternate history set in late medieval Venice. A fantasy novel, its focus is the city itself, the imagined politics of the ruling Millioni family (scions of Marco the Polo) and its Council of Ten and the Assassini, a secretive brotherhood of agents run by the Duke’s Blade – his spymaster, master assassin and bloody go-to guy.

The lead character is Tycho, described as a fallen angel, of the first race who shun the sunlight and drink blood from their victims to satisfy their hunger and enhance their considerable abilities. Yes, this is a vampire story, though not overtly and Tycho’s genetic heritage isn’t the only focus of the narrative, though the inclusion of other fantasy tropes (werewolves (krieghund) and witches (stregoi)) did jar a bit at first.

The Outcast Blade is a continuation of Tycho’s origins, his needs and desires and his difficult relationship with the city of Venice and its denizens. It is possible to read this book as a standalone, but as there is no recap or explanatory introduction, much is assumed and with the at-times-confusing cast, book 2 is likely to be very difficult to follow if not read as a sequel.

The stand-out feature of Grimwood’s writing is his ability to bring his setting to life. He portrays a gritty, bloody, living and breathing Venice of violence, sex, starvation and above all else, trade and wealth. Surrounded on all sides by envious gazes of larger, stronger kingdoms, Grimwood’s Venice is a city living only for the present. The map at the beginning of the book helps to ground the locations, though I found Grimwood’s writing sufficient.

The plots and sub-plots are intricate enough, unpredictable at times and particularly toward the end, the pace picks up enough to be compelling.

Unfortunately, that’s as good as it got for me. I haven’t read any of Grimwood’s other novels and was unprepared for his sparse narrative style, for his tendency to remove the reader from the action or the emotional punch of a scene, to often tell rather than show, or more likely, to not tell or show but to leave the reader assuming or filling in the blanks herself. In one particular scene where Tycho is “caught” alone with a female friend by the woman he is courting, Grimwood allows for only a few spare comments, before closing the chapter.

The other main problem was the premise for the story – his principal character seems to vacillate between being little more than human and willing to be pushed around in others’ schemes and an unstoppable super-being. I found it difficult to credit much of Tycho’s motivations and was dismayed when the final climactic battle was won with quick reference to the aid of a god or city-spirit, mostly unforshadowed and removing much of the tension or skin in the game.

Having said all that, it is an attractive package. The cover in particular is beautiful, the setting rendered wonderfully and Grimwood is a well-known and oft-awarded author and knows how to turn a phrase. His style is unusual however and will not appeal to many.