Venice, La Serenissima, exerts a strange gravitational hold on writer’s imaginations. Jamila Gavin’s excellent Blood Stone (earlier post here), Marcus Sedgwick‘s My Swordhand is Singing, and Michelle Lovric‘s The Undrowned Child use the city as a crossing zone. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion reminds me of Venice with its mazes and claustrophobia as the dank , oppressive smell of the water fills your nostrils whilst Peter Ackroyd was persuaded to write its biography, leaving behind London. The city, in its strange watery, slightly faded grandeur, is more than just that. The Levant is its own entity, neither Occident nor Orient. Perhaps it is both and neither (it has admittedly been many years since I’ve been there).
Jon Courtenay Grimwood‘s fiction, certainly in the wonderful Arabesk series, occupies a similar role. The city of Iskandria is equally a crossing place, merging and maintaining cultures in the same way the Venice does, though in a decidedly more political location. Ashraf Bey, with his Bulgakovian Fox, struggled to find his own place as a person and in culture. It’s “wierd shit” (coined, apparently, by Dick Jude) brashness meant that it was tied into the New Weird. It was ineffably cool but his new book, The Fallen Blade: Act One of the Assassini, makes me want to rethink this slightly.
I have a confession at this point. When I heard about the project, my heart sank slightly. More vampires and werewolves. I really should not have doubted. Grimwood has come back to the familiar mythos, the war between the hirsute and the fanged, the common and aristocratic leanings with aplomb and combined it with a generic fantasy dynastic struggle.
After seeing Tycho drink his victim’s blood, Atilo, the chief assassin, hunts him down and trains him with purpose in mind. The Lady Giulietta has been taken prisoner by Prince Leopold, who assassinated the previous Duke of Venice. As Atilo and Leopold’s last meeting was not overly auspicious, Atilo is driven by very personal desire for revenge as well as the the city’s honour. As is revealed, the dynastic tensions are shown to be part of a wider war, yet few of the parties involved realise the full extent of the intrigue. Since this is explicitly revealed, I do have to wonder as to its importance in the long term or whether we are being set up for yet another layer of the onion to be revealed in future volumes.
Sent to kill Leopold, Tycho is drawn into a far wider clash of cultures which will shed light on his past. Like Ashraf Bey in Iskandria, Tycho’s history is a little hazy and Grimwood uses this to wonderful effect. There is a sense of struggle in his past as well as his role in the wider story (something that Gibson has just been doing in his lastest series). As his personal world becomes wider, so does the book’s and at the moment I do not trust any of the answer’s that have been proferred. Grimwood draws us deeply into one person’s story and how it affects the people with whom he comes into contact, gradually widening the circles until he is forced to accept what he might become.
Similar things happen to Venice. Starting from the dungeons, the place is put into a wider context, accreting layers of importance and history. Grimwood develops a subtly different history, perhaps like Mary Gentle in the Ash novels, that is deliciously worked out and steeped in its own history. Aware of genre roots, he goes somewhere far richer and thought out, immersing the reader into a strange place.
As Venice is the cross-hatched world between Europe and the world, land and water, mixing both together uneasily, so this book sees Grimwood departing from the more esoteric novels that were Stamping Butterflies or 9Tail Fox and back to something more recognisably genre. Yet with a twist of going somewhere completely different with it.
The Fallen Blade is a great read and promises so much more in forthcoming volumes. Beautifully written, mixing richness of language and passion in the action, The Fallen Blade was definitely worth waiting for. Like Miéville and Vandermeer, Grimwood delivers on mixing and reflecting on genre, making even hoary old themese exciting again. I should not have doubted. Mea culpa.
The Fallen Blade, Jon Courtenay Grimwood
(Orbit, £12.99, 9781841498454, trade paperback)