Review: The Fallen Blade

Posted: October 3, 2011 by in Books We Hate (1/5 single_star) Meta: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Fantasy

There are times when, as a reviewer, you pick up a book, get about twenty pages into it, and then say, “There’s no way I’m going to finish reading this.” This happened to my illustrious boss, Steve, when he started reading this book. So, he stopped reading it, and then pawned it off on me. [grumble, grumble] You still have to love the guy, though.

THE FALLEN BLADE (Amazon) is the first book of a trilogy written by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I’d never read anything by this author before, and doubt I’ll be voluntarily going to back for another round anywhere in the near future. The story revolves mostly around a youngish boy, Tycho, that has been turned into one of The Fallen (read: Vampire) by jumping into a magical fire (read: Time Travel Portal), and ultimately gets trained as an assassini (read: assassin) by a master of such, while living in Renaissance-age Venice. Vampire assassins flying around Venice, you say? What could be bad about that? I know. The premise doesn’t sound that terrible at all. In fact, it sounds like it could be quite good. Honestly, it’s a shame how it all turned out.

Five pages in, I knew I was in trouble, and essentially nothing changed from that point until the end of the book. Thankfully, all of my issues can be boiled down to a couple, very distinct concepts.

First: Clarity

No, not the drug that Tom Cruise huffs in Minority Report. I’m talking the kind that lets you see through a glass of drinking water. The kind that lets you enjoy the beautiful blue sky soaring high above you. The kind that lets you understand, as a reader, what is going on in a story when you read the words printed across the pages of the book. There’s none of it here. And I mean none.

Right from the get-go I had no idea what was going on. There’s a kid hanging from a wall where people can see him, but no one will help. He’s praying, but not even the Gods deign to listen to him. Then it’s four months prior, and there are some new characters coming in, but I’m not sure which ones I’m supposed to think are important because the PoV keeps jumping around all over the place. There’s a complete lack of detail and context that makes me want to tear my eyeballs out every time I come back for more. There’s no sense of place, or history, or meaning, or anything that grabs at my interest. The prose almost feels more like slipstream, the way it jumps from one topic to the next; from one character to the next; from one place to the next. Literally every character in a given scene not only comes across as cardboard, but each of them gets the opportunity to finish the sentences of the other characters. Nowhere to be found, though, is any kind of explanation or attempt to help the reader understand what any of it means. This makes the dialogue feel more like it’s full of repetitive interruption, completely destroying any ability to understand what is going on in a scene or why it matters.

Second: Suspension of disbelief

There was a whole lot that happened that just didn’t make sense, thus pulling me away from the experience and leaving me confused. This issue was very intimately tied into the lack of clarity. Events take place that don’t make sense, and seem to just be there to allow the plot to move along. There’s also a decided lack of detail when it comes to the city itself and women. The only piece of this alternate-Venice that stood out was the large timbers that have been driven into the ground to line the canals. Then there’s the fact that 95% of all the description we get about any of the women that play parts in the story are described solely by the shape and size of their thighs and breasts. The pieces that make up an engaging world and a fascinating read were just lacking in the extreme.

THE FALLEN BLADE should never have seen the light of day. Goodness. Avoid picking this one up if at all possible, and if you can't... well.

Now granted, the entire book wasn’t horrible. Occasionally, there were a few pages that would string together something interesting or understandable and I’d start to think that maybe the book would turn a corner. Then it’d drop right back into the mess and start floundering again. I literally had no idea what was going on, why any of it mattered, or where the story was even going until I had made it clear to the end of the book. Once there, I stepped back and looked at all the pieces that had been laid out—the named characters, the connections, the city, the political intrigue, the betrayals, the supernatural elements—and said, “Wow, this really could have been a great novel.” And it could have. It really could have. But it wasn’t. Actually, I’d rather have read TWILIGHT (EBR Review) again, than this one. Wading through these pages was like trying to find a marshmallow at the bottom of a swamp: literally impossible and what’s the point if you can’t eat the marshmallow afterward anyhow?

Honestly, I’m completely in awe that this novel ever saw the light of day. Then again, I don’t know what I would have done if I’d told someone to go write a book that had this really amazing-sounding premise and then they came back with this. “Gaping fish” is the only visual I can seem to bring up. I’d be interested in any other suggestions.

A book to avoid like the black plague, which missed being included in this tale by about 50 years.

  • Recommended Age: 16+, though why you'd want to torture them with this, I don't know
  • Language: Infrequent, but strong
  • Violence: Werewolves, assassins, a vampire—there's some
  • Sex: Some scenes of sensuality


  • tomlloyd says:

    Well that's a shame to hear – don't write off the author though. Might just not be his more comfortable ground, fantasy, but I loved the Arabesque books, 9Tail Fox was also good, and Stamping Butterflies I think was good – enjoyed it, but always with a lingering sense that it was cleverer than I was! Not meaning to be critical of the book that, I'm just a bit slow sometimes.

    • Dan Smyth says:

      You know, I went searching for other books that he's written in the past and I found a whole lot of love out there for this guy. After seeing all of that, I was really surprised at how difficult this book was to read. Most of the reviews about The Fallen Blade are pretty tame and sketchy in comparison to those for his earlier books. I'll have to pick up one of these others you mentioned and see how it goes. Although, I did just find a local copy of Stamping Butterflies and about fell out of my chair when I read this statement on page 2:

      “They were like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences without even noticing.”

      I think I'll look for one of the Arabesque (Arabesk?) novels and try them. Thanks for the reply. And the recommendation.

      • Patrick says:

        Don't be fooled: Arabesque is also total crap. I bought an omnibus edition for reading on holiday, and only the enforced book drought resulted in me finishing it.

        His characters are impossibly cool, – if you're a fifteen year old boy (perfect at everything, astonishingly smart, physically amazing, etc etc). His world was so patchy and ramshackle – an alternative history where the Ottoman Empire never falls plus a thousand other changes, and yet they still know Christian Dior (also, the brand-naming will drive you insane. No one has a pair of shoes in those books; they have nikes, reeboks etc), his women are… I'm not really convinced he's ever met a woman. Again, like a fifteen year old boy's fantasy. And his plots are saddled with the most ridiculous contrivances and cliches. Stay away.

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