Epic Fantasy tends to come with a map as standard with warring nation states and distant continents that need visiting for reasons dictated by the quest at hand. This wasn’t the route I took for The Boy With The Porcelain Blade. The novel takes place inside a vast castle called Demesne in the kingdom of Landfall, a crumbling edifice haunted by intrigue and weighed down with tradition.
Lucien, our protagonist, has no idea of his quest, nor is there a map for where he needs to be, he merely tries to make sense of the world he finds himself in, and how to co-exist within it. This is a decidedly Young Adult fiction trope, which makes sense when you realise that much of the novel focuses on flashbacks to childhood, while remaining an adult Fantasy novel. That’s not to say Lucien doesn’t slip free of Demesne, but the vast architecture and sprawling corridors form the backdrop for his life. Demesne, by its very nature is inward looking. Lucien’s loneliness, insecurity and privilege all conspire to make him a rather self-obsessed youth, but self-obsession was ever the domain (or Demesne) of teenagers. I always like the idea of the corridors being a (none-too-subtle) metaphor for Lucien’s own state of mind; frequently gloomy, often abandoned, or haunted by enemies.
This predisposition with interiority isn’t just reflected in Lucien’s surroundings, but also the structure of the novel. Alternate chapters deliver flashbacks, revealing his past and the triumphs and humiliations that have shaped him. Lucien isn’t just self-obsessed, but obsessed with a past littered with failures he’s suffered too keenly. Only when he concentrates on the present does he finally let go of his past defeats, much to the chagrin of his tormentors.
Demesne, and by extension Landfall, aren’t merely an environment to discover, they exist beneath the very skin of Lucien and the other Orfano, marking them as different and mysterious. The Orfano bear traits in excess of their more human counterparts, but are also marred by imperfections. Lucien’s gifts include climbing and agility (when he finally finds his confidence), not discounting the ability to weather prodigious amount of punishment. His disfigurement comes in the form of missing ears, make him self-conscious in the extreme, with discoloured fingernails and colourless blood that turns blue. Dino shares Lucien’s gift for climbing, but suffers from damaged tear ducts that cause him to weep blood. Poisonous tines grow from his forearms, something he shares in common with Golia, massive in size and hunched with muscle. Anea, by contrast, hides behind a veil and is never seen without her gloves.
What Landfall lacks in geography it makes up for with interiors and interiority of its protagonist, great halls with stained glass windows stand in for sweeping vistas, and lonely cemeteries offer moments of calm. Sometimes the hardest journeys we can make are the ones inside ourselves.
The Boy With The Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick will be published by Gollancz on 20 March, available for £16 on Amazon.co.uk.