Friday, March 18, 2011

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's ""The Fallen Blade"

Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich

The Fallen Blade has a sub-title--Act One of THE ASSASSINI--which alerts us to the fact that it is the first book of a series, probably a trilogy, although I can imagine its narrative continuing, like a great canal, flowing around and through a strange, Gothic city, constructed on rotting pylons, hammered into tiny islands, for eternity. This eternal quality or tone induces an almost dream-like state in the reader and results from the novel's layered construction and the author's decision to use multiple POVs. The initial structural strength of the novel arises from the use of allusions to Shakespearean plays and poems, manifested in sub-plots taken almost directly from Othello (and perhaps even a nod to Measure to Measure with Lady Giulietta's pregnancy and undisclosed father)and the conscious use of the dramatic structure of a play to construct (and foreshadow) its various parts. In fact, the novel is a hodgepodge of resonances, calling upon memes from various fantasy tropes such as werewolves, vampires, fallen angels, viking narratives, and historical figures and events. In other words, the novel uses a known world upon which to create a new, fantasy world. Both the actual world of 15th century Venice and the newly created alternative world contain rich stories and flavors that the reader already knows, thereby providing a richness to the text. And, additionally, for anyone that has ever spent any time in Venice, that historical richness and Gothic beauty still exists. It doesn't take much while strolling through Venice on a wintry night to imagine the possibilities of vampires and werewolves struggling in the shadows.

The novel begins with the arrival in Venice of a beautiful boy, Tycho, hanging from shackles in the hull of a ship and the escape of Marco IV's cousin from her Doge. This exciting force illuminates and centers the machinations of the various power sources within the ruling family--the Millioni--of Venice. The boy suffers from amnesia and his true nature is unclear; and, although he appears to be a young adult, his actual age is unknown. He suffers flashbacks to a more ancient time and place. The girl is fifteen and of marriageable age. Both are pawns in the political games of the city and both seem destined to be together. The players of the game are the Millioni, the ruling family, their assassins, led by Atilo, the German Emperor and his army of werewolves, and the Order of the White Crucifers. However, although there are other forces in play (witches, alchemists, and sprites), both internal and external, the only game is between the Millioni.

Within this rich, political drama, is an origin tale--the story of the fallen angels and the birth of the vampire. Grimwood nurses this arc throughout the novel but he is hesitant to push the story too far. He even says in an interview:"to be honest I'm still not sure he is a vampire." This statement could be interpreted as disingenuous but I tend to believe him. I felt that he was letting the characters tell the story rather than his imposing his authorial will on them by marching them through the narrative, like his puppets. The book, for me, resembles an auteur-type production: it's a singular production of a singular mind, working just outside the boundaries of various genres. And, because of its singularity, or perhaps its idiosyncrasies, this novel is either going to be criticized or fetishisized.

Ultimately, it reminds me of one of my favorite novels: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum. There is the same attention to historical detail, richness of colors and smells, and vibrant violence that induces dizzying madness and vertigo. I will definitely be attending the second act.

1 comment:

  1. Great review - I was drawn by the Rilke quote (I've just discovered Rilke's works embarrisingly late in life), but the review soon took over. Insightful, sophisticated. Now I just need to check out a review of a book I've actually read to see if we're on the same page! I saw a Moorcock review down the list. I loved him as a kid - I need to reread some Hawkmoon/Elric/Corum to see if the magic is still there!