Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Number of Palaces

Someday, I'll review a book immediately after I actually, y'know, read it.

Anyway, back when I was waiting for Changes to come out, I decided to poke around and try out some other books in the genre. I enjoy the Dresden Files, so no doubt there's other stuff that would appeal to me. With this in mind, I hit Amazon.

On a mission like this, I am intensely happy with the Kindle's preview feature. I grabbed the sample chapters for several books and series that Amazon recommended, and man oh man did that save me a fair amount of money. The books I grabbed tended to fall into two categories - stories about someone's White Wolf character, or somebody's personal version of John Constantine. Almost all of them began with a first chapter that was very clearly IN THIS CHAPTER I AM INTRODUCING CHARACTERS AND ELEMENTS, and that was a turnoff. If nothing else, the kindle really underscores how important it is for the first chapter to be a grabber, because if it's not, I have other samples I can try.[1]

In this pile was Harry Connolly's Child of Fire, which I'd added on the recommendation of a friend. It hooked me immediately. Not only did it open with a strong sense of forward momentum, Connolly has a talent for how not to explain things. He introduced plenty of elements that were baffling, but he struck a balance (much as Vandermeer did in Finch) between "Enough to keep me curious" and "So much weird stuff I've stopped caring". Better yet, the protagonist gave an excellent sense of being in over his head while still being a clear Man of Action. That the other character introduced with him was a tiny woman who could A) punch through his head and B) very much wanted to brought it all together enough to get me invested in whatever was going on between the two of them in addition to the greater mystery.

What followed was supernatural investigation & action with liberal doses of pretty compelling horror. The basic framework is straightforward: The protagonist is pretty much the lowest man possible on the totem pole of the secret society of magic-using folks who are committed to protecting the world from invasion from otherdimensional predators. We see very little of this conspiracy (the Twenty Palaces society, from which the series gets its name) but the hints we do get make it clear that they're not really good people, but the threat they protect against is much, much worse.[2] It's a nice framework, and the bits we see are tantalizing. Even setting aside plot and such, I look forward to Connolly unspooling the cosmology some solely because this seems awesomely gameable[3].

At a high level, there's some standard stuff afoot, bad guys to be fought, secrets to be sussed out, mysteries to be solved, and that's a fun ride. Connolly does a good job of populating the setting in a convincing fashion, and at least one review I've seen explicitly calls out his putting normal folks, including older women, in heroic roles as a standout point. To that, I would say only that I did not notice it because they are portrayed as *people* convincingly enough that the other elements didn't even strike me as odd.

If this was all there was to it, I'd still recommend the book. It reads well, is fun, and has a promising premise. But there's still one thing that pushes it past that mark, into the realm of a book I would enthusiastically endorse, and that is the monster.

Extradimensional threats are almost ubiquitous in fiction these days. Horrible things exist beyond the realms of our understanding, waiting to come in from the cracks and destroy everything. Gibber gibber gibber. It's a tired idea, and one that makes authors lazy. Lovecraft may have called things indescribable, but at least he put in the effort of writing a whole hell of a lot of words to say so. Now, tentacles, ooze and transitive behavior have become a lazy shortcut for these things.

Connolly deftly escapes that trap, presenting an extra dimensional menace which is unquestionably alien, but not lazily so. For those who have read Flatland (or any of the books it inspired), there is a moment when the two dimensional being meets the three dimensional being and it's mentally jarring to wrap your head around how it looks from the 2d perspective. It's weird, but there's a logic to it which, even if you can't grasp firmly, you can see the shape of. Connolly captures that sense of things being wrong, but still making sense in a disturbing way.[4]

He also effectively sells the outsiders as predators first and foremost - that they may be otherwise incomprehensible is kept in check by this single, solid touchpoint. It makes them interesting, and it speaks to their behavior in concrete, practical ways. Heck, for all the outsider we see in the book is interesting, I'm even more curious about the one hinted at in the protagonists past. Is that kind of a concrete anchor a big deal? I think so - it means there's enough substance for there to be something for me to be curious about, not just "oooh, tentacles and madness".

Now, I'm not going to pretend this is a great book, but it's fun. The pacing is solid, the fights are mostly well done, and it keeps the reader's attention from beginning to end while painting an interesting picture of the world. The threat is to children, but in a way that felt more truly horrible than simple button pushing (and as a new dad, I'd be happy to call the guy a douche if I thought he was jerking me around with easy emotional trick-taking). It was horrible enough that I'd definitely underscore the horror element in any recommendation, and there are a few people I explicitly won't suggest it to[5].

And recommend it I would for anyone looking for a fast, fun and dark ride. Really, my only complaint is that it's only the first book in a series, and I'm already chomping at the bit for the second.

1 - If you MUST use the first chapter to introduce things, do it in a way that is its own self-contained and entertaining story. One of the best first chapters in all of fiction, for my money, is in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand. It has almost nothing to do with the rest of the book (and, in fact, is really better than the rest of the book) but it establishes the protagonist in a fun, compelling way with the right mix of show, and tell, with a conflict introduced, escalated and resolved, all in one chapter.

2 - Dresden Files fans, consider it through this lens: Imagine if there was only one law of magic, and it was "Don't truck with things beyond the outer gates because they will eat the goddamned planet".

3 - Mechanically, everything presented in the book can be handled with the Dresden Files RPG, but I'm not sure there's quite enough in the book to really do it justice. There are ideas about magic, like the price and nature of spells, that probably merit some more exploration before giving them a try. Additionally, since it seems to be a model of few spells with great power and great cost, some of the ideas of Spells as Merits from WOD:Mirrors might also prove a good match.

4 - Perhaps not coincidentally, since certain elements of the specific weirdness are effectively fourth dimensional.

5 - Basically, if a threat to kids hits your buttons, this book will probably freak you out. The threat is pretty disturbing, without being the wrong kind of disturbing. That is to say, there's no sexual element to it, or fetishization of it, just a genuine and horrible threat to children which is made all the more horrible because it's kids (a fact the text and characters acknowledge). It genuinely disturbed me in a way that splatterpunk torture porn and other horror trends do not, but I feel that in doing so it made for a genuinely stronger book, if only for making it clear what was at stake.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds interesting. Have you tried any Simon R Green?

  2. @rev No, though Fred has put him on my watchlist, so to speak.

  3. Thanks for the excellent review. I loved this book and am eagerly looking forward to the sequel Game of Cages coming out September 2nd. Book 3 should be out next year, but whether there'll be anything beyond that is as yet unknown. I really like the Man of Action In Over His Head aspect.

    And yes, I've definitely thought about using DFRPG to game this.

    I've been enthusiastically recommending it to everyone, except for people who should stay far away because of the children aspect. The most horrific part of that (for me) wasn't the primary effect, but the secondary effect.

    Lastly, I totally agree about the virtues of a strong first chapter, and for that matter, first page, and first paragraph. The best example I can think of is Janni Lee Simner's awesome Bones of Faerie, the first chapter of which is available online. "I had a sister once."

  4. @carl yeah, the secondary effect was what really pushed it into creepsville for me. Resonant with a lot of the things I like about Changeling: The Lost, as I think about it.

    And that's a nice, strong opener.

  5. OK, now you have me worried about the kid thing, dude.

  6. @cam it is scary, especially as a parent, without being cheap, so take that as you would.

  7. I liked it too; it's quite different from most of the "Urban Fantasy" that's been feeling tired to me.

    I'm curious about the Twenty Palaces society, but I also don't want to find out too much-- or, at least, I don't want it to be a focus. It's tricky how he set up that ambivalence.


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