|THE BOY WITH THE PORCELAIN BLADE
Den Patrick (www.denpatrick.com)
On the weather-beaten island of Landfall stands the sprawling Demesne – four great Houses built around a central Keep which houses the reclusive, and reputedly mad, King. Lucien ‘Sinistra’ di Fontein is Orfano, a disfigured foundling taken in by the nobility of Demesne and trained as a swordsman. When he turns eighteen he, like all the Orfano who have come before, and all those who will come after, will face his final test and gain acceptance into one of the major Houses. But there are forces arrayed against Lucien, and against his Orfano brothers and sisters. The political climate in Demesne is shifting and Lucien must shift with it. His very existence depends on his skill with the sword, and his cunning.
Den Patrick’s first novel introduces us to the closed community on the island of Landfall. Centred around the castle-like structure of Demesne, Patrick introduces us to a world that bears remarkable parallels to our own. Using the Italian Renaissance as his model, Landfall is an insular world built around a mad and reclusive King who has created four great Houses – the military Fontein; the agricultural Contadino; the educational Erudito; and the craftsmen of House Prospero – around him to ensure the continued existence of his people. Into this fragile political ecology Patrick introduces the Orfano, rare beasts who normally appear three or four years apart, disfigured foundlings who have the protection of the King and his sinister Majordomo, and who play an important part in the inter-House dynamics.
Lucien, the book’s central character is one such Orfano, a young man about to move into adulthood and the responsibilities that invariably involves. In the background, plans are put in motion, plans to cross the King and his beloved freaks and wrest control of Demesne from the hands of the mad hermit who hasn’t left the central Keep in almost two hundred years. As Lucien finds himself drawn inextricably into this plot, he discovers that it is but a single layer of a more complex web of deceit. As we follow his journey through the political minefield, we are given insight into this young man, and the people who surround him, in a series of flashbacks to various points in his childhood. The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is as intricately-plotted as any novel of intrigue – not a word is out of place, and every scene that plays out in front of our eyes, regardless of how relevant it seems at the time, is key to the ultimate reveal – while still maintaining a pace and sense of action that we’ve come to expect from this type of fantasy fiction.
Patrick surrounds Lucien with an unforgettable cast of characters: the other Orfano, each with their own unique disfigurations and crosses to bear; Superiore of the Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, who has a severe dislike of Lucien; the wise Virmyre, one of the most important influences in Lucien’s education; Camelia, the cook who plays the part of Lucien’s mother as he grows; and, most striking, the sinister, hooded Majordomo, the voice of the King and that madman’s sole representative within Demesne. Demesne and Landfall themselves are locations that stick in the mind of the reader: we get a potted part-history, part-myth about the origins of the island nation (cleverly and naturally told), but Patrick never spends time examining ancient history. There are hints – the Italian language; the histories that the characters read – that Landfall might be related, in some strange way, to our own world, but the novel still maintains the sense of a secondary-world setting, where our own rules don’t necessarily hold true and where, as a result, anything is possible.
There are some deft touches that set The Boy With the Porcelain Blade above the competition: here is political intrigue to put even George R. R. Martin to shame; here a sense of horror that makes this excellent debut a novel that blurs the genre lines quite significantly; here references to technology that show us that this is a world of science rather than magic. The most intriguing aspect is the one that gives the novel its title: the ceramic blades with which the Orfano are issued before they have proven their worth. It’s a strange choice of material for a fighting blade, but Patrick makes us believe it nonetheless.
With elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers – from fans of The Three Musketeers, to those who love to immerse themselves in the Song of Ice and Fire series – The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is a dark, gritty, horrific piece of fantasy fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and keeps them engaged to the end. The sense that this might not be a secondary world makes some of the horror more immediate than it might otherwise have been, and the character of the Majordomo, with his grating, monotonous voice, is one that will haunt your dreams for some time to come. A stunning introduction to a fascinating world, peopled with characters in whom the reader will be entirely invested, Den Patrick leaves us with only two questions: how long must be wait before we can return to Landfall? And, with a debut this strong, how can the second book in the series possibly stand up to our expectations?