Harry Connolly, under the handle of “burger_eater”, has been a Livejournal friend of mine for a while. I got and read the first of his Twenty Palaces novels, Child of Fire, not long after it came out, and was pleasantly surprised. The following article takes a lot from my original Amazon review but adds some new pieces.
Very simple spoiler-free summary: Despite the typical urban-fantasy setup (world like ours, secret magical background, first-person narrator), Child of Fire manages some highly inventive twists on both the plotline and the worldbuilding level, with a flavor that compares well to a combination of Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels, hard-boiled detective stories, and some of Dean Koontz’ horror novels.
While it was very well written, I found it a bit too dark overall to reach my absolute top ranking. In this, it resembles my reaction to Jeff Getzin’s Prince of Bryanae, although Prince is even darker, riding the very edge of my dark tolerance and on occasion actually falling off before recovering and recapturing my attention with something awesome.
There were also elements I felt needed more explanation/backgrounding/detail. Note that I DON’T get the feeling Harry doesn’t KNOW those explanations. This makes their absence unfortunate but excusable, while not knowing is, to me, inexcusable. I do think, however, that the book suffered — very slightly — from this lack. Nonetheless, an excellent first try out the gate.
Following is a more detailed review, and this part does contain spoilers, so beware.
Ray Lilly, the main character, is clearly a man in trouble. He’s working for someone who, we soon learn, is effectively superhuman in a number of ways, and who (at least initially) hates him enough to want him dead, and only leaves him alive because he’s useful. For now.
This is one of the weak points of the book, in that the exact sequence of events that led to Ray being in this position is often referred to, obliquely, and we get small pieces of it, but never, really, a full understanding of how it all happened, why, where, and how he came into contact with the hidden magical world and the “Twenty Palaces Society” that tries to keep the dangers of magic under control. There’s a huge amount of implied background here, and not quite enough exposition to make me feel like I understand the world.
Note that Harry did answer these questions later; the prequel Twenty Palaces is available on Amazon. This doesn’t negate the issue I had with the novel as a standalone, but it’s nice to be able to pick up that information later if you wanted to.
This is also a stylistic and personal author choice; some people may very well PREFER this sketchy background and expect only to see it “filled in” as a series progresses. I just like more of my worldbuilding up front. This is reflected in my own writing, and I’ve had the opposite criticism leveled at me at times – too much worldbuilding, too much information instead of just letting the action speak for itself.
It’s a delicate balance to walk, and the real joker in the pack of course is that since readers are all different, there is no “right mix” for all readers.
In any case, Ray and his boss Annalise are, in essence, hunters of mystical “predators” — *things* that could be thought of as demons, and have been, but are actually something more like alien invaders and parasites who if not kept under control could destroy the world swiftly.
In many ways, this is similar to Charles Stross’ “Laundry” universe, in which mathematics and related disciplines intersect with H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos and give us a vast universe of alien, often malevolent or at least so uncaring as to be destructive monstrosities that a powerful secret organization is trying, desperately, to keep from destroying the world. The difference here is that Stross’ series postulates major governmental agencies running the show in a sort of bureaucratic James Bond of the supernatural, while Harry Connolly’s approach is more secret society than Secret Service.
Ray and Annalise’s first encounter with their new assignment is to see a child burst into flames in front of his parents… and then discover that despite having not only witnessed it and suffered burns, the parents and rest of the family now HAVE NO MEMORY of even having a child. Their investigation quickly takes them to a small town now prospering in what might seem an almost storybook fashion on the surface… but darker and darker undersides to discover.
Ray’s “voice” is very much in the line of hardboiled detectives, something like a more cynical Archie Goodwin and, at times, even reminding me of my own Jason Wood if Jason had ended up on the wrong side of the law. He’s a man who’s done time in prison and while he has morals and basically decent sensibilities is not one to shrink much from some pretty hard-line action.
While he’s not at all incapable of using his fists or a gun, his most powerful — and most inventive — weapon is the result of the one magical spell he has ever cast, a little piece of paper which the spell has turned into a “ghost knife” — a blade that can cut magic and unliving materials, but won’t harm the living.
The ghost knife is a very interesting mystical trick and invaluable for Ray’s work. Harry makes sure to cover multiple permutations of the uses for the ghost knife, and it’s a startlingly useful little gadget, the more so since it appears so mundane on the surface.
The other manifestations of magic we get to see through the book are also interesting, ranging from a particular type of werewolf to mystical tattoos that protect people from physical or mental injury, and the particular disquieting enhancements given to Annalise Powliss, Ray’s boss.
There’s also considerable attention to the costs of magic and related events; Ray, for instance, can survive very grievous wounds, but healing from said wounds isn’t done like in many anime or TV shows, where the wound simply heals up; he needs material that can do the patching, and that means, in essence, meat. A lot of it. Let’s just say you don’t want to push him too far when there isn’t a supermarket nearby.
Annalise, despite being terrifyingly more formidable than Ray, ends up very badly injured due to not realizing the full capabilities of the “predator” behind the current case, and this forces Ray to do most of the work — and in the end, to deal with a mystical predator so powerful that its reach extends across miles and hundreds of minds.
The action is tightly plotted and very well described; you can “see” many events quite clearly. The other characters he encounters are drawn well, even if for only the few pages they appear. In some ways these sections remind me strongly of Dean Koontz, who has a similar talent for sketching out an entire small town with just enough detail that you can believe in it before he wrecks everything with some supernatural disaster.
As I said earlier, aside from the minimalist approach to revealing Ray’s full background, the overall dark tone of the book was the only other negative for me. Some people will vastly prefer this tone, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The final resolution is well done, just not as upbeat as I prefer my endings; I like the Bad Things destroyed, most of the damage put right, and this isn’t really quite the case here.
Still, a very good book and I recommend it to any into urban fantasy or modern supernatural horror (related but not identical subgenres).