Then there's Ray Lilly.
Harry Connolly's protagonist, previously seen in the debut novel CHILD OF FIRE, is an ex-con whose expertise consists of one spell (which he doesn't completely understand) and a bunch of magical tattoos, the meaning of most of which he was deliberately never told. Ray is what's called a "wooden man," which means that his job is to be teamed with somebody more powerful, more skilled, or just more important, and take the hits in order to keep them safe. As a result, Ray is dropped into wildly dangerous situations knowing the bare minimum necessary to do his job -- or, more usually, even less. The results are chaotic, explosive, and unpredictable, but given the modus operandi of Ray's sponsor, the Twenty Palaces Society, you can't say they're unexpected.
GAME OF CAGES is the second book in the series, and it suffers somewhat in comparison with its predecessor. It's solid, but it's much more simple and uncomplicated in its story, and after part one that's a little disappointing. While CHILD OF FIRE had one really great character after another, GAME OF CAGES has only one new character who really stands out, and where CHILD OF FIRE had complication after complication, GAME OF CAGES gets to its big dilemma pretty early on and stays there, and doesn't get any more tangled or more interesting than find-the-bad-guy, stomp-the-bad-guy. It does that job well, but because after a certain point it stops offering new interest and new takes on the scenario it doesn't feel as chock-full-o-nuts as CHILD OF FIRE. Also, the title sucks.
I understand why the publishers rejected Harry's original title, which was incredibly accurate but didn't roll trippingly, but I hate unmemorable titles for series novels. For example, I love Lee Child as a writer but I want to beat him and his publisher with sledgehammers, because he's written a shitload of books in one series that have a host of terse, unmemorable, and interchangeable titles, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. This means that if I'm bumming around a used bookstore and find a Lee Child novel, I have the damnedest time figuring out if I already own the goddamn thing or not. (Example: Child wrote one novel that is set largely in two towns, one called Hope and the other Despair. You might think that HOPE AND DESPAIR might be a decent title, because it sounds ballsy and it actually, y'know, has something to do with what happens in the book. But for this book Child and his publisher picked the title NOTHING TO LOSE, which is the most generic fucking title in the history of ever.) Everybody who reads the Twenty Palaces novels is enjoying them, and I hope Harry keeps writing 'em for years, but man, if he's still going ten years from now I'm not going to even hope remember which fucking one GAME OF CAGES is, or what it's about.
So that's the bad stuff. What does GAME OF CAGES do well? Answer: lots. Balls-out action scenes, and some of the most creative uses of Ray's ghost knife yet. Rippingly good monsters; the main monster is a bit oversold and underrealized, for me, but it's still a really neat monster, and the supporting monsters are fab. The revelations about the way magic works in the Twenty Palaces universe are excellent and well-played, and Ray Lilly remains a complex, engaging character. Most of the guest characters don't make the impression that the ones in CHILD OF FIRE did, with the exception of Ray's major co-star, Catherine, an unmagical investigator for the Twenty Palaces society. Harry draws her very well, and by the end she's a very fully realized person, and you'll be very fond of her. (The other character who made a really strong impression on me dies very early on, alas.)
Most of the other characters aren't nearly as detailed, with a few exceptions, and to complicate matters the book's plot requires the reader to meet and keep straight a lot of characters and factions from very early on. Harry handles this as deftly as any writer I've ever seen: he has a brilliant system of tagging people with nicknames so you can quickly remember who is who until the point where you actually need to learn their names, but it can still be a little tough to keep track of in the beginning. It's still a really solid horror action/thriller, and if it's not as conceptually exciting as its predecessor it does a good bit to compensate in the thrills department. Solid three stars, and I'm primed for the third one.
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