The Fallen Blade – Jon Courtenay Grimwood

About the Book
In the depths of night, customs officers board a galley in a harbor and overpower its guards. In the hold they find oil and silver, and a naked boy chained to the bulkhead. Stunningly beautiful but half-starved, the boy has no name. The officers break the boy’s chains to rescue him, but he escapes.

Venice is at the height of its power. In theory Duke Marco commands. But Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. They command the seas, tax the colonies, and, like those in power before them, fear assassins better than their own.

In a side chapel, Marco’s fifteen-year old cousin prays for deliverance from her forced marriage. It is her bad fortune to be there when Mamluk pirates break in to steal a chalice, but it is the Mamluks’ good luck – they kidnap her.

In the gardens beside the chapel, Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, prepares to kill his latest victim. Having cut the man’s throat, he turns back, having heard a noise, and finds a boy crouched over the dying man, drinking blood from the wound. The speed with which the boy dodges a dagger and scales a wall stuns Atilo. And the assassin knows he has to find the boy.

Not to kill him, but because he’s finally found what he thought he would never find. Someone fit to be his apprentice.

I’ve never read any of John Courtenay Grimwood’s books before now and I probably wouldn’t have read this one if the book blurb hadn’t interested me. The Fallen Blade has a unique premise with vampires and werewolves in an alternative Venice of the fifteenth century. It also promised to be bloody, which I tend get some sort of pleasure out of. I requested a copy of this book through Netgalley and started reading it almost immediately.
It should be noted that I usually try to avoid alternative histories because they either tend to be very well done or half thought out and unbelievable. I feel like I’m gambling every time I pick one up. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that The Fallen Blade seemed to work out so well in a historical fashion. The world of Venice in the fifteenth century is dirty, stinky and absolutely believable. Inserted into this are small hints of church politics, a glimpse into the life of the average man and unwanted street children. In fact, the gritty, grimy streets of Venice were probably the most realistic part of this entire book and often times overshadowed the plot, dialogue and characters.
That’s not to say that the characters weren’t memorable. Both main and secondary characters were well rounded. Though there were times that the characters seemed to suffer from believability issues. For example, Tycho, one of the main characters of the book never quite steals the stage like I’m sure he’s meant to. While he is interesting with a mysterious past, I could never quite believe that someone with his speed and strength would allow himself to be captured, or bossed around the way he was. While I picked on Tycho here, there were issues like that with almost all of the characters, where their actions didn’t quite line up with the situation they were in, or the timeframe the book took place in.
There was some uneven point of view focus in The Fallen Blade, where secondary characters were given points of view rather than several important political movers and shakers. This did lend The Fallen Blade a somewhat uneven feel which it never quite recovered from. This also causes moments which could be important for the plot to be glanced over or implied rather than told about in detail. An example of this would be Tycho’s Assassini training which could have been told in far more detail. Instead I felt that this important development into his situation was glanced over and I was left to assume much about it. 
This book isn’t incredibly deep or thought provoking and while it’s interesting, the plot does suffer from “chaos syndrome.” There were large chunks of the book where too much was going on at once, which, in turn, made various threads of the plot hard to follow and harder to fully grasp and understand. The book really did pay for this by causing me to lose interest in parts. Grimwood simply tried to pack too much action and too many plots into a book that wasn’t nearly long enough, or deep enough to handle them. The first third and last third of the book suffer more from this than the middle, wherein the plot was tightly woven, clean  and easy to follow.
Grimwood’s writing keeps up nicely with his plot and world, despite the issues I’ve listed above. The world building and well-researched cultural details, by far, seemed more interesting to me than much of the chaotic portions of the book. Despite the flaws I’ve listed above, Grimwood’s writing manages to take the reader fluidly through life altering conflicts, surprising twists of fate and interesting situations all the while navigating the treacherous political seas of fifteenth century Venice.
Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book, and while it did suffer from some pretty significant issues, it was a worthy read. The fact that The Fallen Blade isn’t amazingly deep is a benefit. It gives the reader leave to focus on the plot, world and characters as a whole without trying to puzzle out what is going on below the surface. Trust me, in the chaotic parts overly crammed with details, action and plot twists, you’ll find that lack of depth to be a benefit. Despite all of that, Venice springs to life, and if it does somewhat eclipse the plot and characters as a whole, that’s okay. This is one of those unique books where the world is just as interesting as the plot and together they seem nicely balanced – one carrying the reader through when the other falls behind. Fans of alternative histories may enjoy this book and while it does have fantasy elements, they aren’t overpowering.

All in all, this book did suffer from some problems, but it was still a fairly enjoyable read despite all of that. The world of fifteenth century Venice comes to life under Grimwood’s deft ministrations. 
3/5 stars

5 Responses

  • Melissa (My words and pages)

    You know I've read a few reviews on this one now and I'm kind of getting the same feel about it. It's a good book but just not, I'm not sure what the word is – maybe just short on a few things.

    Thank you for the review. I have it on my want list, and I'm really curious about it now.

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    You are most welcome! Thanks for the comment.

  • Jamie (Mithril Wisdom)

    Thanks for the review 🙂 I was interested in the premise of the Fallen Blade, but even though I'm a fan of alternative history (especially Italy – damn you Assassin's Creed 2!) it's not as 'must have' as I thought it was.

  • Tea and Tomes

    I just started reading this one the other day, hooked too because of the blurb on NetGalley. I really hope it lives up to some of the hype I've seen and heard regarding it. But even it only turns out to be 3/5 by my personal standards, that's still not a bad novel; fingers crossed!

  • Jared

    I'm about a third of the way through – pretty much the same comments, but, on the whole, much more positive about it. I like the setting a lot and, despite not liking alt history or vampires very much, I'm getting really into it… Mr. Grimwood ain't dumb, and the way things keep twisting makes me happy. (When I can keep track of all the characters)

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