Something is rotten in the kingdom of Landfall, to paraphrase a very different sword and skulduggery romp. This much is clear early on in Den Patrick’s debut novel, The Boy With The Porcelain Blade.
The king is insane and has withdrawn from society to his private keep. His shady steward, the Majordomo, rules in his stead, while the Great Houses of the aristocracy hatch plots for power. The peasants in the countryside report young girls keep going missing, but the authorities are doing nothing about it. Then there are the Orfano, the misshapen witchlings that are abandoned on the nobles’ doorsteps every few years.
Our entry point into this dark web of Machiavellian conspiracies and monstrous mysteries is one such Orfano, Lucien de Fontein. Born with no ears, this lead character has grown up hated and feared, making him a very angry young man. Fortunately, this rage has made him quite adept with a sword. The novel opens on the day he is to face his Final Testing, which will allow him to graduate from the titular porcelain blade to a steel weapon.
However, the senior sword master Giancarlo stacks the odds against him so that he fails his exam. When Lucien attacks his superior in an act of defiance against this injustice, he unknowingly triggers a chain reaction that brings insurrection to Landfall, leaves Lucien and the other Orfano fighting for their lives, and exposes a dark and terrible secret at the heart of the kingdom.
A thriller set in grotesque caricature of Renaissance Italy, The Boy With The Porcelain Blade will appeal to fans of Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Patrick’s writing is rich with detail, describing the intricacies of every finely-tailored doublet and the extent of every ruined battlement. This ornate style fits perfectly with the baroque setting, while fast-paced plotting ensures it doesn’t become a slog to read.
The Boy With The Porcelain Blade alternates between action sequences of Lucien fighting for survival and flashbacks to his youth. While this can make the early chapters a little difficult to follow, the flashbacks offer insight into this strange world. Patrick teases out revelations in each flashback and ends every action scene on a cliffhanger in such way that the novel is always a riveting read.
While Lucien and the other Orfano feel like fully sketched personalities, many of the large cast of characters are in much broader strokes and often feel nebulously defined. However, Patrick should be praised for writing strong female characters, such as Lucien’s love-interest Rafela and the fearsomely intelligent Anea, as well as subverting the classic damsel-in-distress plot.
Without giving away spoilers, it’s fair to say the manifold mysteries that drive The Boy With The Porcelain Blade are all resolved making this a finely-crafted thriller. However, this is only book one of a trilogy titled The Erebus Sequence, so Patrick reserves the right to throw up a whole new set of questions about Landfall’s shady past and uncertain future.