(Gollancz, 320pp, pb £8.99/hb £20.00/eb £7.49)
When challenged, I usually describe myself as a lapsed fantasy fan, in much the same way as others might consider themselves lapsed Catholics. My journey into the world of genre started with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and Anne McCaffrey.
A large part of what ended up putting me off fantasy was a perceived lack of imagination within the confines of the genre itself. So you can see why Den Patrick’s “The Boy with the Porcelain Blade” appealed to me.
A fantasy in a renaissance-ish Italian setting, rather than the medieval western European model which has become so prevalent; it claims to offer something different. Which is a good starting point for a novel of any genre.
The shame of it, from this reader’s perspective, is that it fails to capitalise on that.
The plot follows Lucien de Fontein. Lucien is an “orfano”, which is a difficult concept to explain without spoiling any key plot points; suffice it to say, they are physically different, and nominally under the protection of the king. Lucien dreams of acceptance, but finds himself increasingly drawn into political games as nobles manoeuvre for power around a reclusive, mad king.
It’s not a bad story, and it’s actually not too badly told. The problem, principally, is with the pacing. It starts off with a sense that there is some event of great significance about to happen. It then takes a few chapters for it to actually happen.
The world Patrick has created is complicated, detailed and intricate. It is no surprise that he has concluded that it requires some explanation for readers to find purchase on it, but at times we seem to lurch out of any cohesive or engaging story into an episode of “This is your life”.
If this stunts the plot development in the early sequence, it is nothing to how infuriating it becomes as the story wears on. Almost all of the action and excitement is in the present, and so for every other chapter to pull the reader out of that present to some ill-defined point in the past is quite jarring.
I suppose, really, if I’m saying that I was annoyed at being taken out of the story, then I can’t say that it wasn’t engaging. And it was. Following its strikingly original setting, it avoided what presumably have been the Assassin’s Creed bear trap, to cling to its very own tone and nature. When it was allowed to run free with the oddity of its own plot it seemed to excel, only to crash down again under the weight of endless confusing social etiquette, or a perplexing focus on the characters’ clothing.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, the characters were a breath of fresh air. Some of the background characters – including, actually, one of the antagonists, who maybe shouldn’t have been such a background character as he was – were a little cardboard-y, but the lead characters were real, sympathetic and flawed.
Lucien is the archtypical stroppy teenager, waking up to the realities of the privilege he has enjoyed, the injustice of the world beyond his walls, and the extent to which he has no control over even his own life. It is tenderly written, without whitewashing him into any sort of stereotype. Lucien was one of the things I found I was most sold on, and most completely believed.
One thing I feel I have to note is the standard of copyediting. It…well, it wasn’t good. The odd typo is expected in a full-length novel, but here I found obvious misspellings, and sentences which made no sense at all. Presumably, my copy having been an uncorrected review copy, this will have on the whole been rectified when it hits the shelves. But I did notice it, and it did annoy me.
When it comes to making a final judgement on “The Boy with the Porcelain Blade”, I’m a little torn. It didn’t wow me from cover to cover, true, but as I said there is a lingering sense of promise, the potential to be something bold and original if only it could cast off its baggage.
It’s the first book in a trilogy – which would be apparent from the endless unexplored of something amiss which seem to be actively ignored by the characters – so there is still space for some of that potential to be realised. But though it was interesting in a number of ways, it ultimately didn’t wow me, and I was left wishing it could have been more.