The Exiled Blade (The Assassini Trilogy book 3) by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (book review).

One, twice, three times a vampire…or not a vampire? ‘The Exiled Blade’ is the final book in ‘The Assassini Trilogy’, an alt-history/fantasy/intrigue series centred on Venice and on the mysterious Tycho, a supernaturally super-powered assassin of mysterious origin… not least to himself.


Over the course of the previous two books, ‘The Fallen Blade’ and ‘The Outcast Blade’, he’s risen to command the Venetian assassins, risen to the nobility and risen from the dead, fought supernatural foes to protect both his city and the woman he loves, the Lady Giulietta, whose son Leo is likely to be the next Duke.

If he survives long enough, that is, Giulietta’s ambitious uncle Alonzo, though departing in exile to Montenegro, has plans afoot. An attack on Giulietta and her son sets the two factions of Venetian politics back at each other’s throats and draws Tycho back into the fray.

‘Third time’s a charm’, I said hopefully in an earlier review from this series, but ‘The Exiled Blade’ is problematical. It’s at its strongest when it’s exploring Tycho’s inner life, but frequently seems to hit ‘confused’ when it’s aiming to make him ‘complicated’. A lot of the time, his behaviour just doesn’t make any damn sense, however, you try to square it with his on-going internal monologue.

While Tycho and Giulietta’s romance could only referencing ‘Romeo And Juliet, more overtly if the characters suddenly broke into rhyming couplets, ‘The Exiled Blade’ does itself a disservice in rendering their feelings for each other oddly flat. We’re told they’re in love, but we rarely see it, often appears as if they’re barely interested or aware of one another and the romance feels doomed in all the wrong ways.

All the while, third-wheel Frederick, the son and heir to the Holy Roman Emperor and leader of his lycanthropic Krieghund provides Giulietta with an ever-sensitive shoulder to cry on. A vampire(ish), a werewolf, a girl torn between them…where have I heard this before…?

But to compare ‘The Exiled Blade’ to ‘Twilight’ on anything more than the most superficial level is manifestly unfair. Unlike her Swannish counterpart, Giulietta here is a complex and fascinating character, not some hollow shell designed for audience-insertion fantasies. There’s a lot of talk of the need for ‘strong female characters’, but a lot of the time that seems to translate to ‘kicks arse like a man’ and not much else.

Giulietta, however, is a young girl and a mother, a woman in love and the scion of a great family. She’s occasionally foolish, fierce, uncertain, shrewd…but she’s learning, developing into the ruler her city and her family needs her to be. As much as Tycho hogs most of ‘The Exiled Blade’s screen-time, it’s Guilietta who occupies the heart of the narrative, learning that men will always view her as an object and try to control her and learning how to do something about that.

While that learning curve isn’t always smooth, particularly around Tycho, who seems to dominate their relationship in a distinctly unhealthy way, it’s there nonetheless and it’s a far more interesting source of drama than the novel’s doomed love triangle.

Doom hangs over much of this novel, in fact doom in the older sense of the word, as of something destined and inevitable. Part of it is the heaviness of the style and the way you can feel all the pieces slotting into place with an ominous click. It occasionally works in the novel’s favour, particularly in evoking a sense of epic or Shakespearian tragedy, but more often than not it just seems to undercut any chance of suspense.

But then I don’t think Grimwood’s really aiming for suspense. I think ‘The Exiled Blade’ is primarily an exercise in style and in mythmaking. It’s the mythological elements of the series which are ‘The Exiled Blade’s greatest strengths. The supernatural creatures which dot these pages are dangerous, unpredictable and compellingly mysterious in a way that vampires, werewolves, faeries and who-knows-what-else are rarely permitted to be in these Wikipedia’d genre-addicted times.

As it has been throughout the series, the mystery of Tycho’s origins and nature remains one of the most interesting aspects of the tale. Part of that success has been Grimwood’s refusal to show his hand, blending the well-known tropes of vampire lore with older traditions and stringing the reader along with red herrings and misdirection and while ‘The Exiled Blade’ provides at least a partial answer, it’s handled delicately and with a suitable air of mythic resonance.

Yet for all that Tycho’s true nature makes for one of the more interesting mysteries of the series, it’s also one of its most prominent flaws. He is, essentially, unkillable. He died in earlier books, he’ll die again in this one…it’s an inconvenience and it renders any attempt to build dramatic tension over a fight scene fairly laughable. Tycho duels a human rival in the snow and we’re expected to worry for him? When in one of the novel’s more epically stupid moments, he manages to climb down the side of a cathedral, carrying a baby, while dozens of monsters tear into him?

They’d come at him from all sides… he realised he could fight them or concentrate on climbing… he could fight them or concentrate on keeping [the child] safe… At best, he could do two of those things. There was no way that he could manage all three.

  He died a dozen times in the descent… flesh ripped from his face and neck, ribs broken and remade…

  Flesh was gone from his face, one eye pulped to egg white in a cheek that was shiny with bone. His neck was a patchwork where needle-like teeth had ripped away his skin. Blood, and a thin clear liquid, dripped from his wounds until his body began its healing mechanisms.’  p.201

All this, and somehow the baby is utterly unharmed? There’s stretching the suspenders of disbelief and then there’s twanging them so hard they snap.

With Tycho so effectively invulnerable, the novel looks elsewhere to source its drama, leaning heavily on the threat of violence to those he cares about: primarily, Giulietta and her son and then Venice. But while the broad strokes of the novel’s main political plot are all pretty standard, solid fare, the devil is in the details…and these are all too frequently veer between absurd and incomprehensible.

Once again, I think Grimwood’s style or his stylistic choices here, at least, are the primary culprit. The action is painted in flat, understated tones and the narrative never pulls back to take in the whole scene. It’s too fascinated by the details and leaves the reader to work out how they all join up.

A climactic battle between armies is so abstractly painted, so focused on little vignettes of combat and conversation that you’re barely aware of the thousands upon thousands of men fighting and dying. It could be a few major characters and a few squads on either side, for all the sense of scale and violence. There’s no feeling of the complexity and chaos of battle when two characters exchange a few words or a few blows, everything else stops to watch them. As battles go, this one’s practically turn-based.

Piling insult atop injury, ‘The Exiled Blade’ also suffers the same dependency on supernatural deus ex machinae as ‘The Assassini Trilogy’s other novels. If anything, there’s a whole trilogy’s worth in this one book and while some turn out to be red herrings of sorts, they lack the sense of awe and wonder the trilogy has otherwise done such a good job of delivering in its handling of the fantastic.

Flawed, uneven, yet richly peopled, this final act in Tycho’s story is much as the first two acts only with the dials turned up to eleven. What else are third acts for? Yet I can’t help feeling that somewhere between books two and three, a line was crossed. It was a line which Grimwood had been tiptoeing carefully along, staying just the right side…but for this reader at least, ‘The Exiled Blade’ is a step too far.

Martin Jenner

January 2015

(pub: Orbit. 338 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-850-8)

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