The Outcast Blade. Book Review

outcast_bladeTHE OUTCAST BLADE by Jon Courtney Grimwood
Orbit, p/b,432pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

At the moment there is a penchant for Historical Fantasy. That is, taking an historical period and setting the story within it. The time and events can be well documented or relatively obscure. They are then twisted to add some fantastical element. In John M. Ford’s classic novel The Dragon Waiting the Princes in the Tower had to be killed because they were vampires. Freda Warrington corrupts known history in The Court of the Midnight King by having the women folk using magic that works. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series populates the world with very large, intelligent dragons and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s vampire, the Count de Saint Germain has surfaced in a number of historical periods. Others either change the future by their characters machinations or put a potential change back onto the right track.

The setting for this, second of Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy is Venice of 1408. This a period when the descendents of Marco Polo rule the City State that has been built on trade. The putative ruler is Alexa, who is a Mongol witch and stands as Regent for her son Marco IV who everyone considers to be simple minded since a childhood fever robbed him of his senses. Her rival is Marco’s uncle Alonzo who believes he should be in charge. It is not just internal politics that has to be taken into consideration. Venice is coveted by outside powers as well. On one side is Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor; on the other is the Basilius, Ruler of the Byzantine Empire. They have two ways of annexing Venice; either by conquest or by marriage. This could be the grounds for a straight historical novel but Grimwood cleverly underlies known facts with fantasy elements.

The focus of The Outcast Blade are Giulietta, Alexa’s niece and Tycho. In the first volume, The Fallen Blade, Giulietta was artificially inseminated by her uncle Alonso before being shipped off to marry one of his allies. Unfortunately for his plans, she was abducted en route and married to Leopold, Sigismund’s illegitimate son. He declares Giulietta’s son, Leo, as his own. What few are aware of is that Leopold and his brother Frederick are kreighund, elite warriors capable of changing into the form of a wolf. In other novels, he would have been labeled werewolf. Here the term is never mentioned. Similarly, Tycho shuns daylight and is nourished by blood yet the word vampire isn’t associated with him.

For his services to Giulietta and Leopold, Tycho has been knighted and provided with a house of his own in Venice. Tycho is in love with Giulietta. Part of this novel is about his wooing of her, part about his efforts to protect her and her son from the more ambitious members of the family.

This is an excellently crafted novel, full of historically accurate details – it is almost possible to smell the stinking Venice mud. While it would be better to begin with volume one, starting here will provide just as much reading pleasure.