Lucien de Fontein wants for nothing. He has an education, a roof over his head and is well fed, healthy and safe. The only thing he’s missing, is hope. Lucien is an Orfano, a child born with a deformity. The Orfano are feted by the noble houses and the price for Lucien’s education is the expectations placed on him. Because the Orfano are hated as much as they are courted and Lucien is hated most of all…
Lucien, even in his darkest moments, exudes confidence and so does the book he swaggers, sprints, bluffs and fights his way through. Much like Tom Fletcher’s Gleam, there’s a sense of vast amounts of story built into the foundations of this one. Landfall, and the castle, are both fascinating places and Den uses the twinned class structures of the staff and the Orfano to both heighten the tension and bring the characters into focus. This is a world that’s largely self-sustaining and has grown around the Orfano. You can almost see how it was originally intended to protect them but the older Lucien gets, the more it becomes apparent how much of a lie that is. Starting on the worst day of Lucien’s life the novel’s main plot sprints and never slows down but is cleverly interspersed with flashbacks to Lucien’s annual tests. Through those we get a sense not only of how he’s changing but how the people who oppose him aren’t. Something is very, very wrong in Landfall and as Lucien realizes that, he also realizes just how deep the corruption goes. Every line is important, every flashback serves a purpose and each scene arms Lucien for what’s coming. In that way, Den not only makes sure Lucien is likable and familiar but also constantly raises the stakes. The simple fact Lucien’s still alive means he’s dangerous and the moment he realizes that is the moment he becomes truly dangerous.
Because make no mistake, Lucien is very dangerous both to the people oppressing the Orfano and to the status quo of Landfall. The first because he’s intelligent, and kind, enough to see what’s really going on and the second because of Rafaela. A member of the serving staff, Rafaela is assigned to Lucien at a young age and the pair of them grow up together. She’s every inch his equal; perceptive, quick-witted, loyal and tough. But he’s a boy, and therefore an idiot, and it takes a while for him to figure stuff out. Lucien’s relationships are where Den really excels. Rafaela, Lucien’s guardian and teacher Virmyre and younger Orfano Anea and Dino are all immensely likable, sympathetic characters who we find out a good deal about. All of them are survivors, some more reluctantly than others. They’re also all outcasts for different reasons and that common thread of isolation binds them together into an eccentric, and fiercely loyal family unit. You like all of them, and without any of them, Lucien would be doomed several times over. This is very far from a standard ‘lone hero’ fantasy novel and that’s one of its biggest strengths.
Another is the unique approach Den takes to the culture of Landfall. The language, culture and outlook are all Italian-influenced and that helps immensely with the more eccentric parts of the world. You’re given an automatic linguistic and cultural grounding which means you come up to speed far faster than you would with other books. It also gives Den a chance to up end your expectations, which he does more than once. After all, as Lucien finds out, the easiest way to win a fight is to surprise your opponent.
Intelligent, funny, surprising fantasy, The Boy With The Porcelain Blade is as elegant, well-trained and heroic as Lucien wants to be. Huge fun and another breath of fresh air for British fantasy.