Darkly atmospheric and dense with intrigue, The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick is a clever and engaging slice of fantasy. It’s also interesting for drawing attention to a type of division that fantasy often overlooks – the division of social class.
Blood and Intrigue
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is set in and around Demesne, a gothic palace constrained by intrigue and tradition. Lucien is one of the Orfano, a small group of deformed children growing up in privilege within Demesne. Their origins and purpose are a mystery even to Lucien. Their suffering, as they grow up through a series of tests and schemes, is far more obvious.
As Lucien struggles to find freedom and meaning, we meet the other inhabitants of the palace – courtiers, tutors, servants, Orfano, and the elusive King of Demesne. All are strange figures, and few are his friends. Lucien’s skill with the blade will protect him from some of these threats, but it will take more than that if he wants to survive coming of age.
Back and Forth
Patrick’s book bounces back and forth in time, alternating key moments in Lucien’s upbringing with the fatal few days in which he comes of age and faces the terrible truths of Demesne. In this, and in other ways, the book owes a debt to Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamorra, a debt which Patrick acknowledges through the telling detail of shark’s tooth buttons in the first descriptive scene, a nod to the shark’s teeth that can buy someone’s death in Lies.
The Boy is as dark as Lies, and somewhat more brooding. The structure works as well in Patrick’s hands as in Lynch’s, and is crucial to telling the story. It allows tension to be held over chapters while only minutes pass in Lucien’s life; reveals background information at the relevant point rather than in a confusing heap; and creates unexpected and satisfying revelations. As a writer, it’s something I look at and wonder, doubtfully, whether I could pull it off. It’s certainly something to learn from, as well as to enjoy.
Social Class in Demesne
The first time I heard of Den Patrick, he was talking on a panel about class in fantasy at FantasyCon 2014. With that in mind, I was very aware of the role of class in The Boy with the Porcelain Blade. It was interesting to read it in the context of some of his comments on that panel.
Though the Orfano are only a small group within Demesne, they are in some ways a social class all of their own. They exist within the aristocracy, yet are controlled and threatened by it. Their lives are defined by expectations that are neither challenged nor adequately explained for most of their lives, assumptions that bind them as tightly as any written rules.
In talking on the panel, Patrick discussed the way that we’re raised to accept our station. For the British middle class, this means a path of study and good behaviour. For the modern neets – young people “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” – this means becoming part of a generation without jobs. For the Orfano, it means accepting rigorous testing, lack of control over their lives, and eventual death for most. Social assumptions keep them in their place. Just like the neets, they could theoretically escape that place, and that idea offers hope, but to do so takes a huge mental leap.
In creating Lucien, Patrick has accepted one of the high fantasy tropes he drew attention to in the panel – that lead characters are usually middle class or above, wealthy enough to drop everything and undertake an adventure. But this doesn’t mean that he fails to show people of lower classes. These people are among the most likable in the book, and often a help to Lucien. The inspiration for his redemptive journey is a servant, someone from beyond his own upbringing, yet someone who he can love and rely upon.
Class is vital to this book. The abuse of one class by another is central to its plot, and it’s only when class barriers are challenged that a better future is found. It’s fascinating to read a fantasy that engages clearly but not bluntly with this issue, and that combines it with a tense and atmospheric story.
I’ll be back for more of Den Patrick’s Erebus Sequence. If you enjoy palace intrigues, gothic atmosphere or stories about challenging the status quo, then this is probably one for you too.