Fantasy Round 24: Blood and Gunpowder
So, what happens if you mash up a fantasy world with the politics and technology of the French Revolution?
The result appears to be Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan. The storytelling is good enough that I’m likely to go back for more — it’s the first book in a trilogy — and I think it does a fairly compelling treatment of the intersection between magic and the industrial revolution.
As ever, there will be spoilers — some of which are incredibly epic, so I’ll try to leave those closer to the end in the event that I haven’t talked you into reading the book yet.
There are several flavors of magic, which form a nice interrelated hierarchy and bodes well for consistent magical revelations later. The first, key point is that anyone with genuine magical powers has an ability called the Third Eye. It’s more or less what it sounds like — someone using their Third Eye can see magical forces at work, and can spot other people with magical gifts.
The most weakly gifted are people with Knacks. They have a single, strong, supernatural ability, with many different possible flavors — one man has truly flawless eidetic memory, another doesn’t need sleep, ever, and similar (but varied) gifts show up.
The Privileged, by contrast, are on the top of the standard hierarchy. They’re your typical wizards — fireballs, exploding curses, that kind of thing. Notably, they require the use of their hands to manipulate the tenuous forces of magic directly. A Privileged can be preventing from doing magic by binding (or cutting off) their hands. They’re also much rarer than people with Knacks, with less than ten of them openly operating in the country of Adro. There are more of them in Kez, a neighboring country, but the Privileged everywhere are worried about decreases in their numbers.
Magebreakers are Privileged who willing chose to invert their powers, for whatever reason — turning in their fireball powers for the ability to block the magic of other Privileged and for near-immunity to it.
These are the groups that, in the story’s history, have existed for hundreds of years. There are also tales about the Predeii, the even more powerful ancient ancestors of the Privileged.
More recently — and of great concern to the Privileged — is the discovery of powder mages. Powder mages also have the Third Eye, but they can give themselves additional strength, speed, alertness, calm, and so forth, by snorting or otherwise consuming gunpowder. Having their blood be in contact with metallic gold nullifies their abilities. Otherwise, they can also control gunpowder, exploding nearby gunpowder at will or using it to apply extremely precise control to bullets. Or to shoot bullets without using a gun at all. This sets the stage for some political conflict, as powder mages are not only much more numerous than Privileged, but Privileged are also allergic to gunpowder. Awkward.
What I really approve of is how the author takes some pains to allow the different kinds of magic to interact with the rest of the world. The man with eidetic memory has worked as a policeman and a private investigator — where a flawless recollection of events is priceless. The man who needs no sleep is a personal bodyguard. If a powder mage needs to be taken down, squads of soldiers are sent in armed with air rifles, so that the powder mage can’t cause the guns to misfire. If a Privileged needs to be taken out, standard procedure is to send in another Privileged working with one of the extremely rare Magebreakers. Or have a skilled powder mage snipe them from several miles away. Or, heck with that, let’s just kill them in their sleep before they can even think about sending fireballs our way.
But — let’s take a moment to consider some implications. It’s stated that the leader of the coup, Field Marshal Tamas, is capable to using explosions of powder to make a bullet go around a corner. How much powder does that take? And, where does all the momentum go?
Well, let’s work it out. A typical modern revolver has a muzzle velocity of 300 m/s. Let’s say it’s not-so-good a gun, and you only actually have a velocity of 200 m/s when your bullet reaches the corner. You need to cancel its forward momentum, and then give it equal momentum in the perpendicular direction. Effectively, you need to do the rough equivalent of firing the gun two more times. (Or, if you’re clever, you fire once at a 45 degree angle with square root of 2 times the momentum of one shot, but we’re just making an estimate here.) In order to conserve momentum, this also means the gases from your burned gunpowder will need to be going in the opposite directions. Let’s say we have a fairly hefty bullet from a handgun, around 5 grams. That means the kinetic energy of the bullet is about 100 J. Since (according to Wikipedia) gunpowder supplies energy of about 3000 J/g, we can estimate how much we need to use to do this, and what happens after it burns. With a little algebra, we can work out that we need about 0.5 g of gunpowder (at a minimum), and the remains of the burned gunpowder will be moving over 2000 m/s. Whoa.
Now, in a normal gun, the momentum from the gases released gets distributed into the gun itself, which is more massive, reducing this velocity considerably. This causes the recoil felt when the gun is fired.
But if you’re doing that with a small amount of gunpowder in a larger bag that you’re carrying around… I’m impressed this trick the powder mages use doesn’t end up setting the whole bag off at once.
Wait, was that a guillotine??
The country may be called Adro, but holy crap, it’s the French Revolution all over again. The parallels are surely deliberate, right down to the bloody executions of much of the nobility and the back-room dealings between the groups running the revolution.
We’ve also got a boatload of distressingly reasonable intrigue. There’s an antagonistic relationship with a neighboring country (Kez) which involves people being executed, magical power imbalances, and lots of bad blood. The Church supports the revolution (at least, officially) because they don’t want their lovely expensive churches being taxed any more. (The religion is, of course, rather different… they venerate the Rope that the god Kresimir supposedly used to descend to Earth from Heaven.) Our private investigator character, while generally an honest man, is manipulated by people who have purchased a large debt that he owes. And then kidnapped his family. The interactions of the various schemes all seem impressively plausible — even down to the bad idea of abducting Field Marshal Tamas for execution in Kez as a political statement.
The parallel is even more explicit than that — one of the major players in the revolution, Tamas’s son Taniel, just got back from helping Kez’s former colonies rebel. Lafayette, anyone?
There are a few issues here. One interesting point is that the culture with regards the military is distinct from actual 19th century France. Women are allowed in the military, at least to a limited extent. Female Privileged and powder mages are a firm part of the action. Not bad.
On the other hand, there’s the hot tempers of Tamas and Taniel. Neither of them seems very good at impulse control, though at least Tamas shows enough self awareness to ask his bodyguard to stop him if he goes too far. (Also, Tamas throws Kez’s ambassador into a lake. Though, to be fair, the man had ordered the execution of Tamas’s wife…)
And then there’s the man who’s disguised as a cook for the revolutionaries, but he’s actually… well, I’ll spoil that later. But he’s got quite a thing for the ladies. All of his assistants are women. And he has a lot of assistants. At one point, he’s caught instructing two young women on the proper preparation of an omelette (actually not a euphemism). At four in the morning. Everybody directly involved seems entirely happy with the situation, but… eeeeeh.
I think that “did you just punch out Cthulhu?” is an excellent question here. (Enter the big spoilers after this point.)
Taniel is a sniper. A very, very good sniper. And a powder mage, of course. So when the corrupt church in Adro attempts to summon Kresimir (who has promised to destroy Adro if the royal line was wiped out), Taniel goes in to stop them. He’s too late, though — they’ve finished the ritual, and Kresimir is descending from the clouds in a beam of golden light. Solution? Use the special anti-mage ammo and boom, headshot. From a nice, safe distance. And Kresimir goes down. Of course, it’s implied that it takes more than that to kill a god, but between that and the erupting volcano, it should slow him down some.
I can see how they built up to that scene, but… wow, that’s a big contrast to the more mundane problems of revolution, intrigue, and war.
The Question of Scale of Epic
This story reminds me of what I’ve heard referred to as “scale of epic.” Is your story about a bunch of little kids in search of cookies, or a battle between gods for the future of all of existence?
Adom, who’s the cook I mentioned earlier, is actually the god after whom Adro was named. He stayed behind when all his siblings left, because he liked the place and wanted to help keep it safe. Because now that the royal family is (apparently) all dead, Kresimir is likely going to do as he promised — and wipe out Adro.
Which is in sharp contrast to the drama Taniel is having with his ex-fiancée, or the problems in the father-son relationship between Tamas and Taniel. How are we supposed to deal with the threat of war with Kez, or the issues of a country that just overthrew the monarchy, in the light of a likely family feud between deities happening in the imminent future?
I think the issue, at least so far, is resolved in two ways. First, it’s pretty clear from Taniel’s sniping of Kresimir and some threats to Adom’s person that, while difficult to kill, the gods most certainly can be badly hurt. Second, while we haven’t really met Kresimir yet, Adom is very human. Aside from being a… fan of the ladies, he is a miraculously good chef. He also does a mean loaves-and-fishes trick (including things like pumpkin soup and caviar), helping to keep Tamas’s people and the citizens living in the capital all fed. He doesn’t like hurting people, but he’s not a pacifist. While his problems may occur on a grand scale, he cares about the small problems and ordinary people. It will be interesting to see what we learn of him now that his “cover” is blown, and how the power of the gods will interact with the skills of mere mortals. I look forward to the sequel.