NOTE: This is a review of a full trilogy, so I did not add book synopses and yes, this may contain some minor spoilers.
I don’t generally like to review an entire series at once, but sometimes it must be done. I recently read The Assassini trilogy by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I read each book so quickly I decided to forego reviewing each book independently and just review the trilogy as a whole.
The Assassini trilogy starts with The Fallen Blade where readers are introduced to the major players of the series. While most of the character operate independently of each other, about halfway through the book it becomes clear how everyone will be entangled. Grimwood uses The Fallen Blade to create a believable, vivid alternative 15th century Venice that will undoubtedly enchant, as well as educate readers.
Unfortunately, The Fallen Blade suffers despite its interesting premise. There is so much thrown at readers at the start of the book that the narrative seems incredibly chaotic and hard to keep track of. Instead of introducing all of the supernatural elements (vampires, witches, werewolves), and political problems (two regents that hate each other and a simple duke, complete with a cousin who needs to be conveniently married off), and a few understated but very present social issues (poverty, violence, gangs, etc), Grimwood introduces all of this in the first hundred pages. It is almost overwhelming. Then, after that, the book evens out a bit. The plot finds its pace, and all the overwhelming aspects from the start find their comfortable positions. Yes, the start of the novel is chaotic, but the middle feels natural. The ending is back to being chaotic, rushed, and bit too convenient. Basically, this book has some significant pacing issues.
Grimwood gets a tip of the hat for taking some fairly typical fantasy tropes and putting his own unique spin on them. However, there are some fairly stereotypical elements here. There’s a band of assassins, which has long since ceased being unique. There’s romantic tension. There’s the sexy mysterious guy, and the two regents seemed a little too cookie-cutter thoughout the series, each falling comfortably in their roles – one being incredibly wise and all-seeing, and the other being too easy to hate. Despite how chaotic and tropey The Fallen Blade can be, it was never boring and does a great job setting up the rest of the series.
Where The Fallen Blade was equal parts entertainment and frustration, The Outcast Blade is where Grimwood really shows his capabilities. Gone are the chaotic elements from the first book. Having established his world, culture, and primary players, Grimwood focuses mostly on plot.
The world has been established, but one of the most entertaining bits of this entire series is that Grimwood never really stops expanding upon it. In fact, in The Outcast Blade, Venice becomes a character in and of itself. I love reading books where I learn things at the same time. Many people romanticize this period of history, but Grimwood shows it in all its unfair, grimy, disease ridden, violent glory and it is shockingly realistic. Yes, I read this series as much for the addictive world as for anything else.
The Outcast Blade has its own plot, but after the first book it felt kind of hum-ho. There is more political wrangling, plenty of betrayal, some emotional upheaval, romantic tension, and a new interesting character added to the mix. It ends with another battle that I found to be rather predictable.
The problem isn’t that the plot isn’t interesting, because it is. This book moves at a rip roaring pace, and without all the attention on establishing a unique alternative-history world, Grimwood really focuses on the plot and it’s a lot tighter, easier to understand and appreciate due to that. However, The Outcast Blade, at its heart, felt much like The Fallen Blade. I found it to be a touch too predictable for my liking. It felt more like a fun romp rather than the thought provoking read I wanted and expected.
That being said, The Outcast Blade was a much better read than The Fallen Blade. The characters are more realistic. Their emotional journeys were more believable and thus, sympathetic. My one character issue was that the two regents fell more into their cookie-cutter roles, which was frustrating. The first part of the book felt largely like a setup while the second part was really where most of the action and excitement takes place. Don’t worry, the buildup and time spent is well worth it.
The Outcast Blade was a solid second installment in an incredibly enjoyable series. While it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was well worth reading.
This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.
The Exiled Blade was, in my opinion, the best book of the series. Here the book is almost divided in half between time spent inside and outside of Venice. While I did lament the loss of the city that Grimwood had created, it was necessary, as most of this book focuses on internal battles between Tycho and Guilietta rather than external battles between Venice and (insert army here).
I found it incredibly refreshing to see how Grimwood had developed these characters throughout the series, and then decided to take such a personal, introspective journey with them. Grimwood handles them with care, and their activities, thoughts, and evolution reflect everything they had gone through throughout the book.
Because most of the true story seems to take place on a personal, internal level, there isn’t a ton of outward action and epic battles to speak of (though there is plenty). Each character has to face their own demons and become the person they were trying to become. Some of the relationships that form can feel a bit contrived, and some of the things that happen suffer from convenience syndrome, but those issues are largely easy to ignore.
After the finale of book two, readers might wonder where exactly Grimwood could possibly go with the series. Don’t worry; he quickly turns the perfect ending on its head. The twist will keep readers on the edge of their set. While the tone of The Exiled Blade is a touch different than the tone of the last books, it is probably the most haunting and memorable of the set.
The trilogy ends on a somewhat surprising, bittersweet, but perfect note. It’s a grand payoff for all your time spent with the characters. Despite the flaws of this trilogy, I felt like I was losing friends when it ended. This is the perfect series for people interested in something different, historical, character driven, bloody, and romantic.
Thanks for these reviews, Sarah. I think Grimwood is an underrated writer, and that’s not just because of the name of one of the minor characters in The Exiled Blade. 😉
I’m really excited to read more of his books.
While I have yet to read the rest of this series I did read the first one and got the impression that a large part of the plot of that book was a re-telling of the story of Othello, which I thought was actually rather cool. Especially once I’d looked up what the origins of the story were that go back to material that Shakespeare would have known and used for his version.
But I also liked that his characters seemed to also be individuals in the their own right. And so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
Another series of his that I rally liked is his Arabesk trilogy: Pashazade, Effendi, Fellaheen. Sf cyberpunk ,mystery and alternate history set in a fictional city in North Africa. I really like his work even if many of his books burn themselves into my mind such that I can’t re-read them after.
I’ve never read another book by Grimwood, but he’s an author I am excited to explore.
I didn’t know that about Othello. Now I’m going to have to re-read it and I’ll probably enjoy it more.
Despite my qualms regarding this series, I really did love it. It’s highly enjoyable, a ton of fun, and Tycho just stuck to me like glue. I loved him. Very powerful character and his internal journey is fantastic.
Yeah, this whole series is essentially Shakespeare fan-fic 🙂 The plot of Fallen is essentially a straight rip of the first act of Othello (wit all attendent pacing issues 😉 and the Othello arc reaches it’s inevitable conclusion halfway through Outcast, at which point Hamlet (prince feigning madness) takes over for the remainder. So if you think the ending was bittersweet remember that it could have been so much worse…
There’s also healthy doses of other plays thrown into the mix throughout (Guilietta is of course pronounced with a soft G) . If it’s any consolation, it took me an embarrassingly long time to twig to what was happening as well – http://fightstart.blogspot.jp/2013/05/the-exiled-blade.html
Not often I see a series that has completely missed my radar. Never heard of these before, but on to the growing list it goes.
I hope you like them!
I have heard this series referenced previously but your review has moved it up the list. I love something with history involved and look forward to exploring his alternate Venice.
You’ll love it, then. This book is positively infused with rich history. Venice becomes a character in her own right. It’s captivating.
I only read the first book in the series, and was largely underwhelmed. It felt rushed and random more often than not, interesting plot threads seemed to be dangled in front of me and then oops, turns out that was just random conversation and never followed up on, and by the end, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to continue with any future books. It might have been more enjoyable had I read Othello, as Angela mentioned, but as I hadn’t, possibly many of the best parts of the novel were lost on me. Books that make the most sense only after having read someone else’s stuff rarely appeal to me, because they often come across like a novel full of in-jokes and references and I spend the whole time feeling like the book isn’t written for anyone who doesn’t know the source material. If this is a retelling of Othello, all I come away with is the thought that Othello is going to be a rather confusing and random tale. It spoils things on both sides.
It’s good to hear that the series improves as it goes on, but I still don’t think I’ll end up picking up the second book and continuing on with it. Not when I have so many other books around that I know I’m far more likely to enjoy.