Book Review: The Boy With The Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

The Boy With The Porcelain Blade by Den PatrickThe Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick
Gollancz, 321pp standard hardback, £20.00 cover price
£5.99 on Kindle (Dec 2015)

Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)

I’m a closet fan of Den Patrick’s writing — then again, perhaps not so closet-y, given my love of his War Fighting Manuals has already been revealed elsewhere — and having also read a few of his shorter stories in anthologies and the like, I’m sure I haven’t been alone in looking forward to reading this, his debut novel. As you can probably guess, I wasn’t disappointed…

 The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels, called The Erebus Sequence, and given that Erebus was the God of Darkness and the Son of Chaos in classic Greek mythology, one can probably already get an idea of what to expect here, but let’s not jump the gun.

Set in a huge castle complex — the aptly-named Demesne — in a kingdom known only as Landfall at the moment, this is the tale of Lucien de Fontein, one of the older members of a deformed strain of royals called Orfani. Told in two separate time-frames, but set only a few years apart, it follows his ‘coming of age’ as he tries to grow up within the rigid confines of an archaic caste-style social structure, and the subsequent war he rages against the established norms, politics and associated backstabbing that are all part and parcel of such a system. No doubt some of you can already see how appropriate the Son of Chaos reference is, but anyway…

The time displacement thing with alternate chapters didn’t take that long to get used to, but it does seem to throw a bit of a curveball when first starting out, yet by the time we come to the close of the story, one can immediately see why the author chose to structure things this way.

There are some instantly recognisable villains in the form of Giancarlo de Fontein, Lucien’s Superiore  (a kind of instructor/weapons master who hates him for reasons not altogether clear at the start), and his chief bully boy, Golia di Fontein; the surname refers to a House caste rather than a family link by the way, and is just one aspect of this tale that sets it apart from more… umm…  run o’ the mill fantasy, as it were. Of course, there’s evidently a lot more going on than we initially suspect, and it soon becomes readily apparent there’s an innate corruption and core rottenness running throughout the system, travelling right up to the King’s mouthpiece, known as the Majordomo, and perhaps even higher still, to the King himself…

There is so much more to say about Lucien’s life in Demesne: his early foray into love and unwanted courtship, the trials and tribulations he suffers in the fencing arena as he achieves his grades and climbs ever higher up the ladder. Then there’s the other Orfani who suffer physical afflictions of their own — especially Anea, who is a sort of mute but is also particularly well-realised, I thought. There are also some brilliant fight sequences, great verbal confrontations, and it’s interesting just to follow Lucien up and down from social outcast and angry young man to smart-thinking court royal and back to older and wiser angry young man again — maybe at heart Lucien is some kind of clever metaphoric porcelain doll figure who just wants to be loved once his fragile exterior has been shattered?  🙂

Anyway, Den Patrick’s setting is akin to Renaissance Italy but smothered with lashings of Mervyn Peake’s claustrophobic Gormenghast trilogy, and some of this reads like a brightly coloured version of the latter, but with cleaner prose and a more dynamic storyline. Indeed, the major fight sequences that take place in the Kings Keep are very reminiscent of the “Blood at Midnight” chapter in Peake’s Titus Groan in which the culmination of a grand feud is intricately played out in all its gory detail, and with a similar undercurrent of animosity and outright hatred literally dripping off the page and whetting your appetite for more. [sorry!]

Needless to say, this comes heartily recommended, especially if you like your fantasy up close and personal. Like as not, it’s another novel that’s going to make it onto assorted Awards lists this year, but failing that, at the very least it deserves a place on your ‘Must Read’ list, however long that may be nowadays…

* This review originally appeared on the British Fantasy Society (BFS) website here

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