The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick
Lucien de Fontein has grown up different. One of the mysterious and misshapen Orfano who appear around the Kingdom of Landfall, he is a talented fighter yet constantly lonely, tormented by his deformity, and well aware that he is a mere pawn in a political game. Ruled by an insane King and the venomous Majordomo, it is a world where corruption and decay are deeply rooted – but to a degree Lucien never dreams possible when he first discovers the plight of the ‘insane’ women kept in the haunting Sanatoria.
Told in a continuous narrative interspersed with flashbacks we see Lucien grow up under the care of his tutors. We watch him forced through rigorous Testings, and fall in love, set against his yearning to discover where he comes from, and how his fate is tied to that of every one of the deformed Orfano in the Kingdom, and of the eerie Sanatoria itself.
The main narrative follows Lucien as he finally confronts enemies who have been hounding him for his entire life. Lucien’s journey from early childhood to adulthood has been fraught with danger. The Orfano, orphans, live a privileged existence, but there are those who would gladly see Lucien and the rest of his kind removed. Interspersed with the main action, alternating chapter’s flashback to key events during Lucien’s formative years. You quickly get insight into the trials and tribulations that all the Orfano face on a daily basis.
I liked Lucien, he’s a fascinating character. Driven by an inquisitive nature, he can’t help but get caught up in all manner of scrapes. He’s lived his entire life as an outsider, ostracised by many, and the loneliness that permeates his character also generates a grim determination within. He longs to find a place where he can fit in, where he will be accepted as he is. His inner strength is almost palpable and he needs to draw upon it when he comes to the realisation that there is something very wrong at the core of Landfall.
Every good protagonist needs an arch-nemesis, and for Lucien that adversary is the Majordomo. Portrayed as the living embodiment of the word secretive, he appears and disappears without warning. There is something delightfully sinister about his character and all his furtive actions. I’m sure we can all agree anyone who hides their appearance under heavy robes is very probably up to know good and needs keeping an eye on. The relationship between these two is like a never ending game of chess. Lucien becomes almost entirely consumed with trying to second guess what his opponent’s next move will be. I’d be lying if said I didn’t want to discover more about the Majordomo’s origins. Revelations that are uncovered later in the plot deliver just as many additional questions as they do answers.
Patrick’s writing deftly captures all the small, seemingly insignificant, details of Landfall and its myriad inhabitants with an expert eye. From the evocative architecture of the city to the opulent design of Lucien and the other Orfano’s outfits. You can’t beat a good frock coat or a cravat. There is a wonderful sense of completeness about it all. Elements like this are a nice referential nod to the novel’s faux Venetian setting. It’s only when you step back, and look at everything as a whole, that you can properly appreciate that these little details are actually all incredibly important.
The best part? The verbal and mental sparring going on between all the different characters, sometimes in jest while in other moments deadly serious. Under the thin veneer of civility and manners that exists in this society there are a whole host of dark plots and schemes just waiting to be uncovered. At first glance a character can appear charming, well-educated and without malice but it turns out they’d happily stab you in the neck as soon as look at you. I love the thought that I could re-read conversations in this book and with the experience of hindsight whole new interpretations could be taken from what is said. The thing to remember? It’s not just a blade but also a choice word that can cause damage in Landfall.
My only minor quibble, and assure you it is very minor, is that in certain respects it does feel a little like this novel is just an introduction to something much larger. Thinking about it that’s not really a bad thing I suppose. I was just little disappointed that there wasn’t more. It feels like the plot has only just begun. By books end Lucien’s character is certainly firmly established, I hope that future novels in The Erebus Sequence manage that same level of detail for the some of the others.
As an aside, and in a weird moment of synchronicity, I found myself reading a big chunk of this novel while listening to the Assassin’s Creed IV soundtrack. It honestly couldn’t have fitted the mood of the writing better. It’s a suitably rousing album and is a perfect counterpoint to the tensions of Lucien’s story. The Boy with the Porcelain Blade most definitely has a swashbuckling vibe running all the way through it, so it’s hardly a surprise. As I read on, I was reminded of the best from historic action and adventure, from The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo to the gothic grandeur of Gormenghast. Patrick manages the trickiest of tasks, he tips a reverential nod to all these classics but also manages to craft something that is uniquely his own.
Overall, I’ll happily admit that I’m impressed with this debut. There is plenty of action, whole heaps of delicious intrigue and a couple of subtle suggestions that there is something much larger afoot. I have my suspicions about one or two of those elements, and I look forward to finding out if I’m thinking along the right lines or not. I’d heard nothing but good buzz surrounding this book before reading and now that I have, I find I’m inclined to agree.
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is published by Gollancz and available from 20th March 2014. If you enjoy your buckle being swashed with a healthy side order of conspiratorial plotting this could well be the book for you.