Captain Numerian Cethegus of the Kingdom of Danthesia is in a bit of a quandary. His commanding officer Sciliren Troponus has ordered his legions into a territory called Eiquandia, about which terrifying legends are plentiful but actual facts are scarce. Worse still, he has been ordered by Troponus to lead an expeditionary force into the heart of the deep Eiquandian jungle. Cut off from the main army, he and his men find themselves needing to repeatedly kill those who are already dead. Meanwhile, back in the Danthesian capital city of Otilia, certain statesmen are beginning to grumble that Troponus has overextended himself and his ambitions need to be curtailed. One such statesman is the Speaker for the King, Getrainor Bilos. Bilos has the best of intentions, but he has chosen his allies poorly. Blood is shed in a wave of political violence. The lovely Acronea, Troponus’ daughter and Numerian’s girlfriend, is in peril as a result. If that wasn’t enough cause for chaos, barbarians from the west are using Troponus’ absence to strike at the heart of Danthesia. From the perspective of Eiquandia’s ruler, the necromancer Erkumagahr, things are moving according to plan. But Numerian finds unlooked-for aid in the jungle from the mysterious Seriana. Seriana and Erkumagahr have a past — a very, very long past that they themselves do not fully remember. And their past influences the present more than they realize…
This is the setting for Blood Like Wine, the debut novel from Marc DeSantis. (For the sake of disclosure, Mr. DeSantis is a long-time friend of mine. I have received no compensation from him, monetary or otherwise, for writing this review.) Blood Like Wine takes the elements of a typical fantasy novel and places them in a slightly different context. There are plenty of swords, a little bit of sorcery, armies of undead, and beings both supernatural and superhuman. But instead of the Medieval setting that is typical for most fantasy novels, DeSantis places his characters in a nation very much like pre-Imperial Rome. Troponus is a clear analog of Julius Ceasar, and the mounting opposition to his ambitions from people of varying degrees of competence has an obvious historical basis. Danthesia, though still not quite willing to call itself an empire, has been steadily expanding its territory. Troponus’ relentless ambition has put Danthesia in direct contact with an enemy whose power far exceeds anything that Rome ever had to contend with, however.
The hero of the story is not Troponus but his captain, Numerian. Numerian gets plenty of chances to show off his fighting ability, but he faces challenges that run deeper than getting his men through the next battle alive. His intelligence and sense of diplomacy often serve him better than his physical prowess, and that gives him more depth and appeal than many typical sword-wielding heroes. Numerian is one of many detailed, believable, well-nuanced characters in this story, though. Speaker Bilos is particularly noteworthy because he remains sympathetic even when opposed to most of the primary characters in the story. The enemies, whether the barbarians or Erkumaghr and his (living) minions, are also developed in plenty of detail and not deprived of humanity and sympathy. The motivations of most of the characters are made clear, with the deliberate exception of Erkumaghr — his full story is only hinted at, and there is clearly more to his “plan” than DeSantis is willing to let the readers in on.
The action of Blood Like Wine is a small part of a bigger, much longer story, however. If the plot of the novel slips a little bit, it’s when the bigger story abruptly takes over about two-thirds of the way through, only to slip back into the background as the novel reaches its climax. Still, the plot is very engaging on the whole. The action comes fast and furious, and Desantis is unsparing and unsentimental where the body count is concerned. The characters are very believable; nobody is perfect, and even the villains are given a fair hearing.
Blood Like Wine is currently only available electronically, through Amazon’s Kindle site. It is the first part of an intended trilogy called the Marshals of the Dominion Trilogy. The best thing you can say about Book One of any series is that you’re looking forward to reading Book Two, and I can happily say that about Blood Like Wine.
(Amazon Kindle e-book, 2012)