Thursday, April 19, 2012

Child of Fire

I really wanted to enjoy this one, since the urban fantasy part of my rotation is normally a heap of mysteries, chase scenes, and great pacing. And besides, I'm always in favor of pyromaniac cover art. 


The quick and dirty:
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Solidly moderate (357 pages)
Publication: September 29, 2009 from Del Rey
Premise: Ray Lilly is freshly out of prison for his involvement in a mysterious series of murders and working for Annalise, a frighteningly dangerous magic user who would love to kill him....if the tasks she assigns him don't help do it first. Their investigation begins when they see a child burn to death by the side of the road; worse, the boy's parents forget about their son's very existence only moments later. On the surface, the town of Hammer Bay is a success story for small business and community. When Harry and Annalise start asking questions, the seemingly ordinary townspeople start raising the stakes to hold their conspiracy of silence together. 
Warnings: lots of children burning to death quickly, plenty of casual brutality and gore
Recommendation: There's so much potential for an interesting universe, but it rings hollow. Put this one at the bottom of your list for a rainy day, or move it up if you're short on decent urban fantasy with a male lead. I got it from the library, and in all fairness, it's a not bad way to spend an afternoon. 

The tantalizing potential: 

One of Connolly's better touches is the way magic is rationed. People can only learn to cast out of spellbooks, each book has a different set of spells with a bit of overlap, and the penalty for looking into someone else's spellbook is death. This limits casters to using a small set of spells in creative ways, and the immense pain that comes with each casting (Ray describes the making of his weapon as feeling as though he was being burned alive) reinforces the tendency to make spells that last instead of flinging magic around like water. It's refreshing to see a universe where "we have a spell for that" isn't the order of the day for every tight spot. Ray's ghost knife, for example, is one of the only pieces of magic that he managed to make before his spellbook was taken away. It cuts through objects and removes some part of people's strength and aggression when it goes through them; this makes Ray good at escaping and getting answers while his opponents are confused. The knife is a versatile tool, and watching Ray slowly figure out how he can use it makes for a good time.

This flexible frame of mind creates a great fight scene early on when Ray gets cornered outside a bar. Annalise has given him some tattoos on his arms and chest that function as armor, so he's able to catch a tire iron against each forearm, pretend that his arms are broken, and use the surprise to get in close and take a gun away. Later on he uses the ghost knife to slice through the barrel of a pistol; it's an effective way to take the weapon out of the picture without having to wrestle for it. This trick admittedly get a little old after about the fifth time he does it, but the early creativity he shows in figuring it out works quite well in establishing him as more than hired muscle with a checkered past.

Ray really does have great turns of phrase; he's not as overtly snarky as some protagonists, but he handles himself well. On the first page he notes that Annalise's hair is "the same dark red as the circled F's I used to get on my book reports," and every time he's kidnapped he has fun provoking his captors. He knows that they need him alive at least temporarily, so he rests easy in the knowledge that he might as well have fun on the way. Most of the banter tends to be worth a chuckle; he's ruthless enough to break people's shooting knuckles but fond of needling them with cheap jokes, and the mix gives him an oddly balanced humanity.

This also shows in his very brief sex life after a local woman with some knowledge of what's going on helps him make a narrow escape. He spends the whole book being furious that people are oblivious to the fact that children are dying, and he pours that emotion into the sex. It's not graphic or cruel, but he's torn between hating her and what she represents and clinging fiercely to life. She mentions the next morning that she enjoyed it but that it was too powerful and she didn't want to go there again, and then there's a moment of potential where he thinks about what it would be like to have a quieter and gentler life where he could spend every morning with her. I've seen elements of the situation before, but nothing with quite this powerful mix of emotion, and it's rare to see anything terribly compelling in urban fantasy sexual situations. Connolly get full marks for doing something different here without lingering on the sex or making it into an intrusion on the rest of the plot.

Annalise is the shining bright-and-grim spot of this book; words cannot express how delightful it is to have two magical investigators of opposite genders work together and not make cow eyes at each other until they trip each other into bed. She hates him for his Mysterious Backstory Sins and wants him to die; he's out of prison on the condition that he works for her, and she's prone to coldly telling Ray that he's late after he's been kidnapped or had to flee a crew of murderous rednecks. Her chief spell is a golem skin that makes her invulnerable to most forms of harm, and she can recover from ought-to-be-fatal injuries by eating raw meat; going to get that raw meat is surprisingly interesting, given how suspicious the locals are and how desperately she needs the fuel after receiving an unusual wound.

More important, however, is her attitude and the backstory that leads up to it. As an agent of the Twenty Palaces society, her job is to eliminate all magic outside the society to keep the Lovecraftian predators from entering our existence. Sometimes that means killing off the person casting the magic before the damage can spread, but it can also mean slaughtering innocent people, even children, whose only crime is having magic cast on them. The predators want to eat and destroy everything, and collateral damage is part of her brutally grim work. It's easy to share Ray's hatred and fear of her at first, especially after she rips someone's finger off for not answering questions quickly enough, but then Ray faces the same sort of impossible choices and they form a cautious sort of trust in each other. It's fragile, and nowhere close to being friendship, but that bond feels strongly realistic. 
The red pen: 

The strength of the spellbook magic structure itself makes the utter incoherent "say what?" mess of the bad-guy plotting more painful to read. I've gone back looking over the whole thing and tried to type it up three times, and I still don't know what's going on. Having ancestral magic running through the town and finally flaring up in the face of modernization and change works well as one aspect of the book, but the way it all happens doesn't entirely fit together. The characters all keep falling for Ray's moronically transparent rumor campaign, it's difficult to figure out which of the town scandals and grudges matter, and there's still no plausible explanation for why one plot-relevant character is holding onto memories while other people forget.

Connolly likes to hint at past plotlines and encounters, like the reason that Annalise hates Ray, but he doesn't do anything to explain the structure of the Twenty Palaces society itself, clarify the backstory flashpoint, or even clear up why Ray was in jail. I didn't quite set down the book to go check to see if this was the second one in a series, but it was a close thing. He also pulls the same thing at the other end, dropping subplots everywhere with minimal resolution on any front, leading to one of the most anticlimactic and emotionally flat endings imaginable. Not every book needs a parade or a sword through the heart to end it, but this one felt like it ran out of gas; this was especially unfortunate after teasing at all sorts of great bits of worldbuilding that are clearly designed to pull you into the next book. It was poor worldbuilding when Storm Glass demanded that the reader remember the tangle of politics and minor characters from the previous trilogy instead of standing somewhat alone as it should have, and the way this clearly shoves you at the next book to figure out what just happened is equally tiresome.
Much though the small-town paranoia builds the flavor of the book, we never really spent enough time focusing on specific characters to become invested in their struggles or even tell them apart. On some level this is an excellent strategy, since they start dying in chainsaw massacre numbers midway through the second half. I started this book on a Thursday and finished in on Saturday of the same week, and in the intervening time I completely forgot who an apparently important secondary character was. The idea of the police force all being brothers from the same family was catchy enough, but the charm wears off when all of them except the head sheriff blur together; they all have functionally the same personality and have all the interesting differences of four pieces of Wonder Bread.

There's a lot of carping on Amazon about how people were expecting this to be the Dresden Files because Jim Butcher wrote a blurb for the cover and that's why they're disappointed, but honestly, I was pleased to see how different it was. There are enough clones of famous series out there already, and this book's failings really show without holding it up to anything else. The only thing that doesn't work by comparison to Dresden is that Ray's good-guy streak has been drawn in a red crayon the size of a small child. Ray is harsh and cynical, but he makes some nauseatingly overdone speeches about how someone has to stand up for dead children and always mentions the bad things he could be doing just before he does something good to demonstrate his integrity (or annoy the reader) along the way.
 
Ray finds unattended jewelry from a devastated family that could get him money and freedom, but puts it back out of respect for the dead. He tortures someone for information to the point that the man cries and makes a point of mentioning that his fellow inmates back in jail would be aroused by this, but that he's queasy. This would work better if the things he lists aren't always despicable; you don't get ethical brownie points for acting like a halfway decent person. The way that he always helps Annalise and makes a point of how he could leave if he wanted to is hilariously moot after he mentions that she has a nasty array of spells on him that definitely include tracking for her peers in the Twenty Palaces society. Having the protagonist think longingly about mayhem or torture in tiny doses can be powerful, but presenting the choice every time he or she is tempted doesn't work; it simultaneously destroys any faith you might have in his or her ethical compass and ruins any attempt at subtle character growth.

All in all, Connolly has plenty of potential to write great books, but it isn't showing enough yet. Odds are I'll check back when and if he starts a different series one day, but it was just really difficult to stay engaged; the magic system and Annalise helped a lot, but one excellent major character can't wallpaper over quite this much sloppy writing.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Word and Void trilogy by Terry Brooks. No, don't make that face; these are gritty modern fantasy, nothing like Shannara at all (although he apparently connected them and I refuse to read any such abominable experiment), and hands-down his best work. You've got the similarity of a loner with bloody hands coming to down and trying to put things right, but Brooks nails the feeling of how much is at stake, not to mention the aura of a small town and the knowledge that there are no perfectly happy endings. 
~Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. I don't think I've ever spent so much time giggling in shocked horror at a book before. One man manages to claw his way out of hell, wants revenge and answers, and has a way cooler magic knife than Ray does. ^^ Seriously, give this one a shot.

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