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David Hines [userpic]

review: CHILD OF FIRE

January 27th, 2010 (05:27 pm)
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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.

Comments

Posted by: A large duck (burger_eater)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 12:58 am (UTC)

Thank you!

The biggest thing I learned from Bill Martell was how to tie a bunch of cool sequences together so they made a coherent story. I could write Cool, Weird Shit, but it never came together as a story. He explained how to find a unifying theme, and how to make supporting characters and their subplots build on that theme.

And yeah, he's the one who said that the characters with the least story time need to be more extreme.

The punch in the fucking head bit came from something Ted Elliott said. He'd had someone begging his advice for a scene where a character almost gets a secret message meant for him in a parking garage or something. The writer couldn't make the scene work so the protagonist and the audience knew about the message but (because his plot required it) didn't get it.

The immediate response was "Why shouldn't he get it? What happens to your story if the secret message doesn't actually stay a secret?"

Like a lot of writers (meaning: me) the question-beggar was operating on an unexamined assumption of how the story should play out. I did the same thing pretty early, because it wouldn't have made sense for the hero to hunt around trying to figure out who.

Also, you are the only person who's said they thought the backstory was too much. Most people (Kurt Busiek included) thought there was too little.

But thanks very much for the review.

Posted by: A large duck (burger_eater)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
Puzzled

Oops! Hey, um, my normal policy is that I don't comment on reviews (mainly for fear of bigfooting on any chance of a discussion). Sorry if that was inappropriate.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)

It was totally inappropriate, you suck, and I am boycotting your books now, you heathen dog. The good news for you is that I can be appeased with Charlize Theron and roast mutton.

I always appreciate thoughts from the reviewed. I do find it really interesting that I'm the only backstory grouch; my reaction to reading this stuff was that I don't want to hear so much detail about a story that I couldn't go read. It's rather like being beaten about the head with the Giant Rat of Sumatra. I think there's a sweet spot for this stuff. (I had a friend once who saw ARMY OF DARKNESS without knowing that the Evil Dead movies had ever existed, and her reaction was, "Why didn't they put all that stuff at the beginning in the movie?")

Posted by: A large duck (burger_eater)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)

If I had Photophop I'd plaster Theron's head onto a feasting Basque grandma, but as it is you'll have to imagine it and hate me.

You know, the very first time I met a reader was at San Diego Comic Con. I was signing at the Del Rey booth. The publicity folks would hand free AREs to people in line, the readers would walk five steps in line to me, and I'd scribble in them.

One of the first people in line walked up to me with her nose down in the book, looked up at me and said "Is there a book before this one??" She sounded a little tense about it.

If I'd been clever, I would have said "This is my first novel. The characters have history together, though." I wasn't clever.

Posted by: Amberley (amberley)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 09:26 am (UTC)
An excellent debut

I just read CHILD OF FIRE and enjoyed it enormously, so I also enjoyed your positive review just now. The memory thing was very creepy. I'm very much looking forward to more books in the series, and wish they were out now.

I thought the backstory was just right. Snippets, but not dwelt on.

Much as I like Annalise, I'd also be fine with it if she's not in GAME OF CAGES (due out August 31). Maybe she's off having adventures with Stieg Larsson's heroine.

Posted by: HJ (hjcallipygian)
Posted at: January 28th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)

Heh, it's always fun to hear about what you're reading, especially when I'm reading the series of books my friend's eight-year-old daughter is reading. (Percy Jackson, if you're interested.)

I'll have to check this book out in the future.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: February 6th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Child of Fire interview

I think Child of Fire is an awesome read. Harry Connolly talked with me about his gritty supernatural debut, and shared some insights about dark heroes, inspiration and the fatal mistake made by most aspiring writers. You can read the interview for free on SciFiBookshelf.com

Posted by: eddiehawkins (eddiehawkins)
Posted at: November 16th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)

I finally got around to reading this (in large part due to your recommendation, but long enough afterward that I forgot what you said in your review). I agree with most of what you said. I checked a couple times to make sure that this was actually the first book in the series and I was also a bit confused about where Annalise had gotten off to. And the action scenes were very good if a little confusing at times.

There were a few too many named characters for my liking. There was an action scene late in the book where Roger was saying or doing something and I thought "who the hell was Roger" and then "Roger is a person who might or might not get shot and that's probably all I need to remember so I'm not going to take the time to figure it out".

overall I did like it though and I will read the next one.

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