The Boy Who Wept Blood is the second book in the author’s Erebus Sequence. Though it is not a direct sequel to The Boy With The Porcelain Blade, published last year, as it does not follow that book’s protagonist Lucien or his storyline. Instead it is set ten years later, but in the same world of Landfall, an Italianate secondary world of intrigues, infidelities and rapier-like wit. And actual rapiers. Lots of rapiers. Though it is no doubt of benefit to have read the first book, it is by no means essential to fully enjoying this one.
Most of the action takes place in and around Demesne, a vast castle-like conglomeration of Houses of the nobili, the noble families, reminiscent of Gormenghast in its labyrinthine structure and claustrophobic atmosphere. The story follows Dino, the brother of, and bodyguard too, the queen. Both of them are orphani, the collective name given to individuals with certain physical anomalies whom are both revered and reviled within society. Dino, for example, weeps blood (as well as having a conspicuous disfigurement); this really represents the primary fantasy element in the setting—there is rumour of sorcery, and superstition and myth about but they never become explicitly manifest; for the most part the book remains low-fantasy.
The physical differences of the orphani (we learn that Lucien was also one) stand as a metaphor for othereness, a recurring theme which plays out across social class, gender and sexuality. This is utilized to give characters distinct perspectives and motivations and drives the subtext of the book.
Conflict in ever-present in Demesne as a consequence of feuds, espionage and between the nobility with death never more than a silent stiletto away. Dino is maestro superiore di spada, the master-at-arms, as well as being a useful spy (and later, assassin), and his skills are in both demand and a source of contention amongst the noble families. He is an engaging and sympathetic figure, torn between duty and desire and caught up within the Machiavellian machinations of a court society in which trust is a scarce commodity and alliances are fragile at best.
Stylistically the book is well-balanced between lush sensory descriptions of place and person (the details of clothing are particularly well-tailored) and taut, economic writing in the action sequences. The dialogue is crisp and acerbic and the characterization displays much nicely textured writing: specifically, Dino’s internal struggle is depicted with sensitivity but does not shy away from rawness of emotion when required. This book has style!
Throughout, the plot moves with pace and purpose; although intricate, it is not so complex it becomes onerous to keep up. The twists are effective and several red herrings do their job, leading to a left-field denouement; if there is a slight quibble it is that the bizarreness of that climax struck a different chord to the rest of the book, bringing in a more high-fantasy tone, but it was compelling nonetheless. The book concludes with a muted coda, suggesting there is another entry in the Erebus sequence yet to come. Fingers (and blades) crossed for a return to Landfall in the future.