Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hounded

This one was a joint recommendation from Smartypants, Misanthrope, and Cookie Monstress-- when enough of my friends tell me that I'll love something, what can I do but hurry up and read it?


Rating: 4 stars
Length: Light and snappy (304 pages)
Publication: December 3, 2011 from Del Rey
Premise: Atticus O'Sullivan is a Druid who has survived twenty-one centuries and is now running an occult bookshop in Arizona to avoid the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are highly dangerous to his continued survival. One of them has finally decided to track him down and try to take back the sword Fragarach, the Answerer....preferably over Atticus's dead body.
Warnings: impressive gore
Recommendation: Pick this one up, especially if you have an interest in Irish mythology. Hearne manages to get his research across while pulling in a broad cast of characters, magic, and several layers of plotting and manipulation...all in barely three hundred pages of tight pacing. I am delighted.
 
What makes this one crisp and light:

Kevin Hearne excels at providing the correct amount of detail to draw readers in without focusing too much on the excess. This is particularly obvious in the interaction of different types of magic and mythology systems. Atticus O'Sullivan himself is the last of the Druids, and there hasn't been another for roughly a thousand years, so people don't always have a clear idea of what exactly he can and cannot do. Unlike many characters in this genre, Atticus can't throw fireballs, and his strength is limited when he's not in direct contact with the earth, the source of his power. When he's touching the unpaved ground directly, he's capable of shifting his shape or healing a bullet wound in his chest; if he's not, he can rely only on the power already stored in his amulet. This unassuming piece of jewelry was the product of over seven hundred years of work and is his greatest safeguard against the various faeries who would like to see him dead. He has merged iron into his aura, which makes it painful verging on lethal for any of them to touch him, but that doesn't protect him from the older Tuatha Dé Danann or from swords, bullets, or poison. His magical strengths are the realistic result of centuries of work combined with staying out of the way as much as possible, and his vulnerabilities-- both magical and character-based-- ring true. He can do a lot with bindings, working to influence someone with a drop of their blood or use the earth to trap someone's feet, but he's not suited for high-power direct strikes.

Instead of trying to focus on methods to determine the exact strength and focus of a particular supernatural person, Hearne lays out a community in which people evaluate each other based on age. One's true age is a closely-guarded secret in most cases-- if enemies can figure out age and origin, it's much easier to work out a strategy based on historical biases and blind spots. Gods are the oldest, but various witches, werewolves, vampires, and other creatures are staggered across the centuries. Many of them manage to get along by trading services and favors but also keep a careful eye on each other as they try to learn everything they can and maintain that sometimes-uneasy truce. These services, covering everything from no-questions medical care to magical cloaking spells on request, feel well thought-out and allow Atticus to maintain a realistic skill set instead of mysteriously knowing everything. Atticus has a particular problem with witches because he watched someone's heart explode out of his chest only a day after a witch got some of his blood; for all his age and power, he's deeply unnerved by the power of witches who are only a century or so old, very nearly children by his standards. The age difference humiliates him when they draw him into a (perhaps overly-convoluted) trap, but in the interim we get some really great interaction, including some clever fencing when the parties involved have to answer each other's questions honestly without giving too much away. 

By far the greatest factor in keeping the pages turning, though, is the bantering humor that bounces between the characters. Atticus has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon-- I braced myself for this to be deeply awful like the dog in A Kiss Before the Apocalypse, and then I almost snorted my drink out of my nose laughing at a few of his one-liners. Oberon is realistically doglike in his love of sausage, running, hunting, and helping Atticus, but he's also addicted to watching videos during the day and makes terrible Star Wars jokes. His attitude is breezily irreverent enough to make him seem closer to a snarky familiar than a fully mortal pet, but he manages to carry this....imaginative innocence that hits the best of all possible worlds. Atticus brought him out of an animal rescue and taught him to talk mind-to-mind, but his loyalty is tempered with self-interest in a way that brings their bond very nearly into a relationship of equals. That sort of sincerity is rare, and helps make the rest of Atticus's convictions stick as well. Late in the book, Atticus comments that his absolute sticking point of rage is people doing harm to the earth. This sort of conviction is very often the source of a second wind for boss fights in urban fantasy; the villain threatens the protagonist's city, or children, or just does some small thing to kick in that last necessary touch of unbreakable determination rooted in the deep places of the protagonist's psyche. The earth is a general enough focal point that it should be cheesy, but in Hearne's hands it's absolutely not. Someone is drawing tainted power from the earth in a way that could damage it personally, and is ergo sentenced to death for creating bindings to darkness, even if no one but Atticus has enforced that Druidic law for thousands of years. 

The other minor characters are often brilliant as well. Hauk and Magnusson, the vampire and werewolf lawyer team, spend most of their pagetime discussing actual legal advice, and that tends to limit them a bit; they do, however, end up with some great one-liners and hints that they will have even better roles to play in the sequel. The Morrigan deserves her own entire paragraph, in part for her long-standing bargain to not take Atticus to the afterlife as long as he continues to annoy one of her enemies, but explaining why she's so delightful would entail spoiling some of the best endgame twists, so suffice to say that Hearne hits the balance between sociopathic death goddess and playfully bored immortal with style. This trend holds well for the other immortals as well, particularly the hunt goddess Flidais-- they have a Bronze Age mentality and very little respect for human life, but they're also delighted by the simplest of things providing novelty in an endless lifetime. By far the best minor character, though, is the widow MacDonagh, an old Irish woman who delights in flirting with Atticus while he mows her lawn. It's rare to see urban fantasy writers take the time to incorporate vanilla mortals who aren't allies in battle or love interests, but the widow MacDonagh is there entirely to provide tipsy Irish flavor....and each and every one of her scenes is a gem. Really, the whole cast of friends and dubious allies shines, and it's hard to set the book down when more banter is always waiting on the next page. 

To condense many things into a unifying theme: Hearne did research, and it shows in a good way. When the Morrigan explains that she did divination by casting the wands, she explains the individual wands in question and their probable interpretation in a compact way that also illustrates an understanding of how they would work together. When witches from a coven show up, that coven is based in Polish mythology that will very probably get more explanation in the sequels. When Atticus is forced into a duel with swords, it's always short because, surprise, swords are sharp and dangerous, so the first really good hit will often put an end to things. All of this means that when Hearne is making something up, like exactly how a Druid apprenticeship would work, it feels all the more like a solid part of the universe instead of Because Plot Said So, and that level of assurance smooths the way such that it's easy to lose a few hours reading this without noticing at all.

The red pen:

For the most part, Hounded flows well, but in places it can wobble a little, particularly when working with characters and information that fall outside of Atticus's immediate circle. Oddly, while Atticus has an ear for impersonating the slang of the college students who frequent his shop, the few appearances of those students themselves are....less than wonderful. In one early scenes, two guys are calling each other "dude" and "man" in every sentence, with some "whoa" thrown in for good measure. Stoners sometimes do talk like that, but the sheer volume of 80s-esque slang almost had me thinking that the scene was extra material from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. 

Excellent though most of the minor characters are, two seem to not work quite as well. Laksha is a witch of exceptional power who has found herself sharing a body after over a century trapped in a magical container; she and the body's owner have reached an alliance of sorts, but how is frustratingly unclear. Normally Hearne's technique of dropping in just a few tantalizing details works, but Laksha and her associate end up doing a lot of introductory telling about how they found each other and what they need. This could work, since the idea is intriguing enough, but at the end of all that telling it's hard to be sure exactly what happened, or even what details are being left out. We're told that the magical vessel in question went directly from a near-inaccessible location to a witch's possession via Atticus, who did the retrieval and sensed nothing unusual, let alone a living spirit, in it-- how did this associate reach Laksha in order to make an alliance? Did the witch in question not sense anything during this process. Clearer explanations may well come in future volumes, or not matter that much, but introducing stray questions without more clearly filing them away as private information, trade secrets, or mysteries for later makes it tempting to chew that issue over, to the detriment of the fairly interesting bargaining process that immediately follows this backstory.

The conclusion also falls prey to one of the common problems of books with such tight pacing. There are quite a few threads ensuring that Atticus would be caught in the nasty fight that happens at the end of the book, and they're even pulled together in a compelling way that leaves very few threads dangling, but there's no space to process it. Atticus hits several revelations in a row, but instead of taking the time to think through ramification or just react to the way his loyalties have taken a hefty shot, he moves directly into tying up loose ends. On one hand, this makes sense; Atticus has spent centuries cultivating a "this too, will pass" mentality and is unlikely to get bogged down in angst. On the other, he has a few realistic outbursts of temper earlier in the narrative when people he cares for are threatened, even letting valuable information slip because he's too angry to watch his tongue. After some of the final upsets, even a page or two spent asking questions and trying to evaluate who to trust could have rounded out the ending a lot more smoothly. After such smooth progression earlier on between events, reactions, and plotting, it's unfortunate to see things cut off so abruptly at the end.

On the whole, Hounded is one of the strongest opening urban-styled fantasy series debuts I've seen; Ill Wind was of a similar caliber, but most series take a little longer to hit their stride than this. It wobbles a little in its presentation of the more tangled minor characters and the pacing just after the big closing battle, but those are quite forgivable given the quality of the rest of the book. Combining humor and action and actual research in a book this short is tricky, but Hearne makes it look effortless. The rest of the series is absolutely on my list to pick up when I have a little more time.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles. The most recent, Trapped, came out in November; the sixth book, Hunted, comes out this June.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~I'm going to point to the Dresden Files here, largely for the similarities in pacing, protagonist wisecracking style, and magical battles taking place more than a little above the proper weight class. They're also very different (Dresden causes more explosions, O'Sullivan has more common sense), but an overlap in fanbases seems more than likely.

2 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you reviewed this book! I love the whole series. Glad you liked it too :o)

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    1. I definitely enjoyed reading and reviewing it-- the hardest part was pausing long enough to take notes on it. The rest of the series is definitely on my reading list.

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