The Powder Mage Trilogy

By Brian McClellan

McClellan’s first book, Promise of Blood, begins in the middle of a coup, and as such, it takes a little while for the reader to sort out exactly what is going on (and who their sympathies should lie with). Stick with it. Soon it becomes clear that the reader’s perspective will follow Field Marshall Tamas (who initiated the coup), his son Taniel Two-shot, and a handful of other rebels-turned-rulers. Both Field Marshal Tamas and Taniel are what are known as “powder mages,” who are able to ingest and manipulate gun powder in order to trigger powerful abilities. But while magic (powder mage and otherwise) plays a vital role in the story, there is a fair bit of the mystery and war genres mixed in among the typical fantasy tropes.

The first book itself is certainly not perfect: the character development isn’t very strong, and there are a fair number of instances where putatively smart individuals make bone-headed decisions just to move the plot forward. But as a freshman attempt, this is solid work, and McClellan strums many of the notes I’m listening for. His magic system is novel, and conflicts between the powder mages and the more conventionally talented mages feel appropriately high-stakes. I’m also a sucker for a good story about military strategy, which comes to play frequently in the series.

By the end of book one, things really start to heat up, and if your taste is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself quickly reaching for books two and three, The Crimson Campaign, and The Autumn Republic. McClellan improves as he goes, and skillfully weaves multiple story lines together in ways that leave the reader craving more. I will admit, however, that like many authors of epic fantasy, McClellan struggles to resolve the trilogy, and as many before him, ends up relying on the trope of “main character somehow becomes super powerful just in time to defeat evil.” With that said, after completing the trilogy, was I immediately inclined to reach for McClellan’s next work, (Sins of Empire)? Yes, yes I was.

This is classic fantasy meat and potatoes. Approach with confidence if you enjoy battles, sleuthing and cliff-hangers.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Thousand Names, The Last Kingdom.

 

2 thoughts on “The Powder Mage Trilogy”

  1. Great review! I’m about halfway through Book 2 and I agree with your main points here. The writing feels clunky at times, and the story occasionally strays into cliche and predictable arcs. I also find Adamat considerably more likable than Taniel or Tamas, who can both be really tough to root for sometimes (I love flawed characters, but arrogance is a tough flaw for me to work through). Tamas’ chapters are mainly saved by the eminently likable presence of Olem, and the occasional appearance of Mihali.

    Along with that, your most recent review made me realize the female characters in this series are nearly non-existent. Three of the four POV characters are men (and Nila barely counts as a POV character to me, since she’s had about 4 chapters per book, but I’m holding out hope that she figures heavily into wherever the story is going). It’s not that there aren’t any female characters, it’s just that they are paper thin and one dimensional. Characters like Vlora could provide an interesting perspective from within Tamas’ army, giving us a reason to really care about them when they’re trapped behind enemy lines in Book 2. Instead she is relegated to the background, and the occasional rumination from Tamas or Taniel about what could have been. Lady Winceslav and even Fell could give us unique looks into the political machinations of Adro (something I find equally compelling as the warfront), instead they are just boring NPCs that facilitate the quests of our male narrators. Giving us Faye’s perspective could be a powerful complement to Adamat’s quest to find her, instead she gets the “damsel in distress” treatment when our brief glimpses of her through Nila show she is much more than that. The most fleshed out female character by FAR is Ka-poel, and she’s mute…. that seems rather emblematic of McClellan’s struggles to write female characters.

    Coming off the heels of The Expanse, with characters like Bobbie, Avasarala, Naomi, Dr. Elvi, Pastor Anna, Michio Pa, even Clarissa Mao…. it leaves something to be desired. It’s tough to world build when your characters (specifically Taniel and Tamas) share such similar perspectives and backgrounds. The world ends up feeling narrow in scope, and shallow — like it’s devoid of real people who make you care whether or not Adro falls to the Kez. The flip side to that is the story is focused, rather than a sprawling epic that cannot hope to be contained within a trilogy. And you can argue the male-centric story fits the historical era McClellan’s story takes inspiration from, but GRRM had that excuse also and still managed to write some powerful and incredibly nuanced female characters.

    All that said, I’m invested enough in the story that I will see it through to the end (your note about the ending isn’t necessarily heartening, but it is encouraging that you felt compelled to pick up his next trilogy). I just can’t help but feel like McClellan is still finding his voice, and this series would have been stronger in the hands of a more seasoned writer (or even McClellan later in his career).

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  2. Also, this is a minor quibble I suppose, but I find it so bizarre that McClellan doesn’t give his main characters last (or first?) names. You’ve got characters like Ricard Tumblar, which seems to indicate that first and last names ARE a thing in this world. Then characters like Lady Winceslav (w/ late husband Henri Winceslav) indicate last names are DEFINITELY a thing. So then, “Inspector Adamat” would seem to indicate that Adamat is his last name, but we never know his first name (is his wife’s name Faye Adamat? We don’t know). Is “Tamas” the last name of Field Marshal Tamas? Or first name? It seems like his last name given the way it’s used, but to not give the main character of your trilogy a FIRST NAME is a little baffling. Taniel “Two-Shot” seems pretty clearly like a nickname, so is his “real” name Taniel Tamas?

    It’s a minor detail but the more I think about it, the less I understand it. If it’s not intentional, it’s lazy writing, and if it IS intentional, I can’t for the life of me understand what purpose it serves. It’s little things like this that make it hard for me to feel fully immersed in this world, which (to me) is one of the great joys of the fantasy genre.

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