The Boy with the Porcelain Blade – Erebus Sequence #1 – Den Patrick
An ornate yet dark fantasy, with echoes of Mervyn Peake, Robin Hobb and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. An original and beautifully imagined world, populated by unforgettable characters.
Lucien de Fontein has grown up different. One of the mysterious and misshapen Orfano who appear around the Kingdom of Landfall, he is a talented fighter yet constantly lonely, tormented by his deformity, and well aware that he is a mere pawn in a political game. Ruled by an insane King and the venomous Majordomo, it is a world where corruption and decay are deeply rooted – but to a degree Lucien never dreams possible when he first discovers the plight of the ‘insane’ women kept in the haunting Sanatoria.
Told in a continuous narrative interspersed with flashbacks we see Lucien grow up under the care of his tutors. We watch him forced through rigorous Testings, and fall in love, set against his yearning to discover where he comes from, and how his fate is tied to that of every one of the deformed Orfano in the Kingdom, and of the eerie Sanatoria itself.
It’s pretty rare for a book to really surprise me, since I normally already know quite a bit about the book, be it from reading reviews written by friends of mine or because I found it in a catalogue and it piqued my interest. ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Blade’ is a book that was on my radar since last year. It popped up quite a bit on social media, so my expectations were high. I can’t say all of them were met, but this was a great, solid debut novel. The story itself succeeded in surprising me and giving me a story that was unique and intelligent, at times a bit crazy and overall very imaginative.
The main character and the focus of this book is Lucien ‘Sinestra’ de Fontein. He is an Orfano, a deformed orphan that was left on the steps of the noble houses, or the Great Houses as they are called here. Lucien isn’t the only Orfano, there are a few of them and it is a big mystery where they’re from and what the reason is for their deformities. All of them have different disfigurements and though they are all accepted in one of the Great Houses, they aren’t loved. They are looked upon with fear and sometimes horror. But for some reason the nobles educate them and give them a chance to earn the name of their families. All these Great Houses can be found in the vast castle of Demesne, all of them linked and involved in constant rivalry, assassinations and political intrigue like only noble houses in a Fantasy tale can. The King also lives in this castle, but no one has seen him in years. He rules his Kingdom of Landfall mostly through his majordomo, a repulsive, old creature that walks around cloaked, with an impressive staff and a collection of swarming flies in the fold of his cloak.
It’s pretty clear from the very beginning that Lucien is having a tough time in the castle. We meet him as he is waiting to enter the testing chamber for his final trail, at age 18. Failing can mean expulsion or even worse, death. Taking the test is Maestro Superiore di Spada Giancarlo, the man Lucien hates most and probably the man who hates Lucien the most too. What happens during this test is the beginning of a rollercoaster of a tale that will push Lucien to his limits and beyond.
I absolutely loved the setting of this book. It has a definite Italian feel to it, from the decorations in the chambers to the clothing and the names. Having seen many Western, Oriental and desert settings in the books I’ve read lately, this Italian atmosphere was new and fresh. It also fitted the story perfectly. If something is typical about tales set in historical Italy, it is that it is full of arrogant nobility, intrigue, assassinations and lavish costumes. All of this can be found in ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Blade’.
The concept of the ‘Orfano’ is also very interesting. It’s all very mysterious: their ancestry, their deformities, the fact that Lucien for example bleeds clear fluid that turns blue and that Dino cries tears of blood. It gives them all something dark and gothic. When the truth about them was revealed I was a bit flabbergasted. I definitely hadn’t seen that one coming and I’m still not sure if I really like the explanation or not. I guess opinions will be divided about this plot twist. It’s a startling one and frankly also a pretty weird one. If this is something you like, this book will be a real hit for you.
In between the chapters where we follow Lucien in the present there are flashback chapters. This way of storytelling has become common in Fantasy books and here it was a very good addition to the flow of the story. It takes us back to key points in Lucien’s past where we learn little bits of information that all come together smoothly in the action-packed climax.
Lucien’s character was one I clicked with immediately. He was fleshed out really good and took you along in his story like you were there. Giancarlo was another character that was masterfully written, so cruel and treating Lucien so unfairly that it made my skin crawl.
I fell in love with Dino, though he isn’t particularly a character that has a lot of moments in the spotlight, he was just written in this certain way that charmed me from the very beginning. The other characters all have a distinctive role and none of them felt flat or unnecessary, everything just knitted together wonderfully.
Den Patrick’s writing is very good, no doubt about it. I read the book in just a few sittings, totally immersed in the story and the writing. He knows how to captivate his audience.
I liked ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Blade’, it’s a really good book and a great debut. It does have a few shortcomings and the major plottwist made me frown a bit. Like I said before, I’m still not sure how I feel about it, it’s either genius or weird. But if I look at the book as a whole, then I have to admit that it is a well written, dark book full of mystery, intrigue and awesome swordfights. Bring on the next book in the Erebus sequence!