Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The Fallen Blade is Act One of the Assassini Trilogy. You can enjoy this intricate historical and political fantasy with its nuanced, layered characters on its own, or you can follow the Shakespearean references that glint throughout the work like a silver thread in a tapestry. The choice is yours.
It could be argued that The Fallen Blade doesn’t need anymore intrigue, even if it is Shakespearean. Grimwood set his story in Venice at the beginning of the 15th century; perhaps the most politically complex city-state in a complex, turbulent era. Besides internal political struggles that are labyrinthine, elegant and cruel, Venice also has to fend off hungry invaders and outsiders from everywhere. Alliances are as evanescent as morning mist, loyalty is fleeting and honor a dangerous luxury. Add magic to this bubbling caldron and the whole mixture ignites, part fireworks and part firestorm.
The first character the reader meets is Tycho, who awakens in the secret hold of a Mamluk ship, shackled in silver, his memory in tatters. When Venetian customs agents come aboard, he escapes, nearly drowning in the attempt. He makes a psychic connection with Duchess Alexa, who rules Venice as Co-regent with her brother-in-law, Duke Alonso. Alonso and Alexa conspire against each other, using every weapon they can, while working together to keep the external enemies of Venice weak and distracted.
The book is largely about Tycho’s journey of discovery, both of himself and the deadly world of Venice. Tycho doesn’t eat. He can sense other people’s thoughts and see in the dark, but the sun, like silver, burns him. His reflexes are far faster than those of a mortal, and he has a taste, a hunger, for human blood. His impulses and reactions are not human, although he does form an attachment to the beggar children who find him washed up on the side of a canal, and the Lady Giulietta, Duchess Alexa’s niece.
Grimwood is remarkably un-sentimental about his characters. Everyone has a point of view and a motivation, and no one—well, almost no one—is purely good or purely evil. Cruel and vicious things are done to characters we like and by characters we like. Through it all, Shakespearean shadows add depth.
Atilo and Desdaio
Atilo, a Moor, is a renowned general with a celebrated history. As the Blade of Venice, he serves both the Duke and Duchess as the city’s master of assassins. Atilo has no doubt excited the envy of lesser men in Venice, and when Desdaio, the conventionally pretty and fair-skinned daughter of the richest man in the city falls in love with him, it sparks resentment and jealousy. Desdaio’s father is particularly resentful because he had planned a more advantageous match for his daughter, but is forced into accepting Atilo by Duchess Alexa. Atilo, who lost most of his highly trained assassini in a battle with werewolves, enslaves Tycho, intending to teach him the arts of the assassin. He sees Tycho as his successor. By bringing Tycho into his house, he sets up a situation that encourages an ambitious and self-serving servant, Iocapo, to drive a wedge between Desdaio and Atilo.
The relationship between Atilo and Desdaio is the least satisfying one in the book. It is clear that Desdaio loves Atilo, although it’s hard to see why. Atilo says he loves her, and behaves with the predictable jealousy required of his character, but he has not married her and ignores her through most of the book. Desdaio is kind-hearted, and, in a city where the most common coin for truth is death, courageously honest. She is intrigued by Tycho but loyal to Atilo. At the end of Book One, their story is incomplete. Will it end as Othello does, or will Grimwood surprise us?
A’rial/Tycho and the Duchess Alexa
In The Tempest, Alonso is the King of Naples, lured to Prospero’s island and baffled with enchantments. In Blade, Alonso is the brutal and powerful co-Regent of the city, but not immune to magic.
The Duchess is Venetian by marriage only, an arranged marriage to the former ruler of the watery city. She is a Mongol. She practices magic; maintaining a youthful appearance despite her age and monitoring the city through the eyes of a bat familiar. She has a stregoi, a pet witch, named A’rial, a red-haired waif who looks about twelve years old but is clearly much older. A’rial can call down the winds and the lightning. In the climactic final battle scene, Tycho finds himself changing as he begins to embrace his power; able to move from one ship to another in the interval of a thought, and changing in appearance to something demonic, moving faster, and killing faster, than any human. Is Tycho Caliban? Is he Ferdinand? Is he some other facet of Ariel, the ship his cloven pine, or is he something else, something rich and strange?
I’m sure if I knew my Shakespeare better I would see the myriad other correspondences Grimwood has laid out. Because this is a trilogy, and Grimwood is working on a broad canvas, he has given himself plenty of time to meditate on the bard, while maneuvering Tycho and the other characters through daily acts of betrayal, brutality and heroism, demonstrating feats of magic and letting Tycho’s strange origin story unfold.
Near the end, in a scene that seems rushed, Tycho confronts a Mamluk captain who tells him how he came to be shackled in the hold of the Mamluk ship. Tycho finds out his original purpose—to be a weapon—and his original target.
It does seem that Tycho, now freed from slavery, will become the master of assassins, yet Grimwood’s Venice is not a city that can be trusted. Magic enchants, people lie and shadows can kill. Vengeance and plots percolate for generations. People make bad choices for good reasons, and live to regret them. The watery island city holds ghosts and magic, secrets and darkness. Prospero’s library will not be dukedom large enough for this elaborate, sprawling tale.