Lucy Hounsom takes a look at a thrilling literary fantasy début…
It’s been a while since I let myself become swept up in a book to the exclusion of all else. You know the drill: it gets later and later, the night grows deeper and still you struggle to put the damn thing down. And on the morrow, you brush your thumb across the remaining bundle of pages and think, oh I might as well sit here and finish. It won’t take long.
It takes five hours.
That’s essentially the story of how I read Den Patrick’s superb début novel.
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade could be described as literary fantasy steeped in a kind of alternate history Italian Renaissance. Patrick’s world, Landfall, has its origins in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where a ship, carrying a diverse cast of characters, is wrecked on a rocky shore. Patrick’s own cast is just as diverse, and like Shakespeare, he opens his story with dramatis personae.
I always feel a little daunted when presented with a list of characters I haven’t yet met, but this actually proved invaluable when I needed to check which character belonged to which ruling House. Each House embodies an area of expertise. They provide a solid structure around which Lucien’s story is built. Lucien himself is an immediately endearing hero, one you cannot help but root for. He embodies the essence of our hopes and fears as we grow to adulthood, and I think many will identify with his damaged self-image caused by his ‘deformity’.
Other characters surround him and influence his growth to adulthood. Giancarlo is someone you love to hate. The Majordomo makes your flesh crawl. Virmyre is teacher, mentor and guardian rolled into one, and you’re as keen to be around Rafaela as Lucien is, though be warned: her hair inspires feelings of extreme jealousy. Dino and Anea are characters just as intriguing as Lucien himself. They have their own stories to tell, which I hope will be explored in subsequent books.
Demesne – a brilliantly apt name – may be a small arena to host the dramatic events of the narrative, but it serves as a well-realised manifestation of Lucien’s introspection as an individual. Patrick captures every face of this great estate: good employment for the many invisible servants; an elaborate, dangerous chessboard for the nobiles; a gilded cage to Orfano like Lucien…and a leviathan whose twisted heart is riddled with deceit.
Den has written a fascinating piece about Demesne’s role as a setting in a fantasy novel, which you can read at SciFiNow.He explains why his novel does not conform to the usual epic fantasy practice of carrying a map (for you map-lovers out there, he has a good reason), while simultaneously piquing your interest with some intriguing character descriptions.
The novel’s overwhelming sense of place bleeds through into the prose, which is smooth and for the most part effortless. It’s also studded with truly insightful bits of observation, such as the skewed sense of perspective young children have when they think about being older. Those little truths are among the reasons I fell in love with this book. The narrative has a dream-like quality. You can’t always guess what a character will say next during a conversation, or where the point of view will move. It’s a subtler way of keeping a reader on their toes.
Lucien’s story is revealed to us through a dual time structure. Each chapter alternates between past and present, the past chapters grouped loosely around Lucien’s yearly tests in House Fontein. This leads to a satisfying denouement: the past catches the present, bringing the reader neatly up to date with all the clues Lucien unearthed throughout his childhood concerning Landfall’s mysterious King. While some may feel frustrated by this structure, I see it as an integral part of the narrative. Both past and present chapters tend to end on cliff-hangers, a device that builds intensity as we near the book’s finale. This kind of layered storytelling perfectly suits a novel with a dark truth at its heart, a truth that the protagonist comes to accept it is his destiny to expose.
Patrick’s writing is practised, fluid and a pleasure to read. At times, it seems slightly disjointed, as if text has been edited out and the gap not smoothed over. I also felt an occasional lack of closure to a passage of dialogue or description, but I am going to put these minor points down to reading a proof copy.
I can’t conclude without a nod to the best romantic scene I’ve read in a long time. I’ll try not to give anything away and say only that in the hands of a lesser writer, it had the potential to go horribly wrong. Instead we share a subtle, very real moment that manages to convey honesty, tenderness and just a hint of the awkwardness that’s a natural part of physical intimacy.
If that hasn’t sent you running to pre-order, I don’t know what will.
Now, I have received the great honour of being admitted to House Erudito – the scholarly House, don’t you know – and I simply must return to my literary duties. Let’s hope Erebus doesn’t send me back to the fields for these candid words. Watch your step around him, friends.
Lucy Hounsom, for Waterstones.com/blog
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is published on 20th March