David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines


I've owed Harry Connolly a review of his CHILD OF FIRE, the first novel in his Twenty Palaces series, for a while now. Full disclosure: Harry and I have known each other online for several years and pop up in each other's comments sections fairly often. That said, his book sucked. -- no, I'm just kidding; it's really pretty damn awesome, and its characters are so engaging and its pace so relentless that I tore through it in an afternoon, which makes the delay in this review a little embarrassing.

I think it's Kurt Busiek who said, in his review, that CHILD OF FIRE falls into the "supernatural ass-kicking" school of urban fantasy. That's pretty dead-on; supernatural ass-kicking is pretty much its own genre these days. Often, particularly in the huge-and-still-growing subgenre of paranormal romance, the protagonists are women who usually have some kind of romantic attachment to the supernatural even as they hack-and-slice their through it, which makes me think that these stories owe less to their urban fantasy antecedents like Charles de Lint and Tim Powers than they do to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. It's also worth noting that the main characters are usually experts in the world in which they operate; like Anita Blake, they usually have special powers and special gimmicks and are special snowflakes who know what they are doing at every turn. (Except in their personal lives, where they are unsure and uncertain and great big woobies like Harry "excuse me, I need to cry for the fourth time this book" Dresden.)

Harry Connolly goes in pretty much the opposite direction from all of this. CHILD OF FIRE, as he's said in interviews, owes more to the crime thriller than to fantasy adventure. It's more Dashiell Hammett than Jim Butcher. His protagonist is not an expert: he knows next to nothing. His protagonist does not have alliances with cool, powerful, special people who respect him: he is the lackey of a cruel, powerful, special sorceress who loathes him and treats him like shit because she thinks he deserves to be dead and she expects him to wind up that way pretty soon anyway. It's common for the ignorant protagonist to be The Expert by the end of the book (see Larry Correia's terrific supernatural ass-kicker MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL for an example of this; his protagonist starts out knowing nothing about monsters but a truckload about guns, and comes out with A Destiny and knowing a hell of a lot about the world he operates in and the people he operates with), but Harry's Ray Lilly comes out knowing not much more than when he went in.

Ray is paired with a sorceress named Annalise, a peer of the Twenty Palaces society. Their task -- her task, really; Ray is just along as her "wooden man" -- is to find out what's going on in a strange little town. The events of Chapter One vividly show that the town is far stranger than they thought: when you're involved with sorcery, it's one thing to see a child burst into flames and turn to burrowing worms; it's another thing entirely for his parents, who witness this, to forget that the child had ever existed.

Harry develops the mystery, and the town, quite well. There are great supporting characters, in big parts and in tiny roles; Harry trained as a screenwriter for a long time, and he cites Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (of, among many others, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN flicks) as folks from whom he's learned a lot, but he also cites the terrific B-movie screenwriter Bill Martell, and I see Martell's influence quite a bit in the way Harry makes even his shortest-lived characters colorful. (They'd be juicy, one-day-of-shooting roles for character actors.) But the story is king, and Harry's got a very strong one, which I won't spoil much for you; suffice it to say that lots of things are wrong in the town.

I think the fact that the villain reveal comes early is a good step. When Annalise and Ray go to the villain's stronghold, everything is obviously -- a bit too obviously -- askew. This is, you are at first inclined to think, a misstep of the sort we see all too often: the heroes meet the villain, without realizing he's the villain. Except the audience *knows* this trope, so when we meet a nice guy at a particular level of authority we automatically think, "Oh, he's going to be the bad guy." It's an attempt to deepen mystery (which almost always fails, usually because there are no other good suspects) and build suspense for a future confrontation (which the reader becomes impatient for). It's a trope that has been followed so religiously it's now devoid of all practical value -- you know, the way that you can pretty much expect the hero's beloved mentor to turn out to be corrupt and evil, so you're not surprised when it happens, so there has to be a second twist if you're going to be surprised at all. (This is why I'm increasingly coming to enjoy stories that don't just lead to one obvious pay-off, but present an array of possibilities such that the story could go any one of a zillion ways, all of them entertaining. Towards the end, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES was doing this, and it made the show great viewing.)

The reason I mention the obvious is not that Harry does the obvious thing: he is too good a writer for that. But it's clear he knows you're expecting him to, and he games that expectation: at exactly the moment he gets the reader thinking, "Jesus, the bad guy is right over there! Why doesn't the superstrong sorceress go punch his fucking head off?!" the superstrong sorceress goes to punch his fucking head off. And all hell breaks loose. Because Harry's a good enough writer to know that when things are really important, characters tend to not play by nice rules, even the nice rules that are so embedded in us we tend not to think of them as rules at all.

CHILD OF FIRE is a really entertaining book. It made me eager for the second book, and simultaneously curious about how Harry intends to play it as a series. The dynamic of having Ray the unimportant guy makes him a terrific contrast with all the competing supernatural ass-kicker series heroes out there, but I don't know how Harry's going to keep believably putting him in the hero spot book after book -- if the more powerful person who actually knows what's going on gets incapacitated every time, who will want to take the guy on? It's like the redshirts who go down with Kirk and Spock, or got in a shuttlecraft with Chakotay; those dudes must have been drawing straws for the gig after a while. I'm interested to see how Harry handles this.

I did have a few quibbles: we don't know what an important character is up to when she's offstage much of the time, to the point that one wonders if she's doing anything -- Harry gives her a perfectly good reason to be inactive, but later she has a throwaway line to the effect that she went out at night and sank a boat, and I thought, "Wait, what?"; there is a scene where Ray makes a shocking revelation about the town's police officers to another character, who takes it in stride, but is stunned when Ray brings up the town's disappearing children -- somebody feigning ignorance should have disbelieved Ray's initial revelation; and Ray's reflections on how exactly he got into this situation are unfortunately clumsy, overlong, and detailed to the point that the reader may be inclined to wonder, "What the hell? Did I miss the first book in the series?" (IIRC, that's because the publisher thought Harry's idea for the second book made for a better opener, so the origin story exists in these drips and drabs and maybe in Harry's sock drawer.) But the book is really damn good, nonetheless.

If you like hard-ass thrillers and supernatural horror, CHILD OF FIRE is well worth your time. I'm really looking forward to books two and three.
Tags: books

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