So many urban fantasy novels merge our world and a supernatural one, of elves and orcs and whatever else. Bruce Davis does that here too, but in an original way indeed. We're the alien dimension, for a change, and nobody here sets a single foot on our side, but there is a very neat connection that left a big smile on my face.
This is an alien world, we might say: a parallel universe; but this isn't really a science fiction novel. It's a fantasy novel because this is clearly a fantasy world in which the fantasy species are intermingled and everything runs on magic. However, because fantasy is a notably versatile genre, this is also a cop thriller even if Simon Buckley and Haldron Stonebender are technically King's Agents based in a city called Cymbeline and the reason behind Hal's name is that he's a dwarf.
They find themselves quickly in trouble, because their kind of legal raid on a cottage they expect to be a bomb making factory run by orc terrorists ends up with a high elf dead at their hands. Sure, she was trying to kill Hal at the time, she had a slew of animated golems running around (illegal outside a laboratory) and she was about to sacrifice an orc in a blood ritual; but she's also quickly discovered to be a college professor, Glendowyn Hightower, the sister of the Steward of Tintagel, so her death is an international incident.
I liked this from moment one and for a lot of reasons.
One is simply that I'd like to see a lot more novels using the sort of setting we see more often on-screen in TV shows like Alien Nation or films like the recent Netflix original, Bright. I haven't read anything in this sort of vein since last May, when I reviewed Dan Stout's Titanshade, and I'm struggling to think of the time before that.
Another is that Bruce Davis does a fantastic job of worldbuilding. This isn't a large book, running only three hundred pages in an oddly wide font, but he somehow gives us history and science without ever diverting away from his characters and the quest they have at hand. I'd love to read more books set in this world, even if they don't feature these characters, because it's a rich one.
The history is delicately inserted, because Davis has no interest in turning a novel full of action into an academic exercise in the way that Tolkien did on occasion, but it's evocative. The tyranny of the Magisterium is gone, with a new, more open world following the Commonwealth Accords. Now, each of the races seems to get on well with this other one and maybe enough with that one too but definitely not that one over there, with the permutations changing depending on which one we're talking about. The backdrop is of a terrorist threat from the Azeris, driven from a neighbouring country.
The science is delicately inserted too, because it could easily have become a distraction. Suffice it to say that, while all the tech runs on magic, with any King's Agent breaching squad having a Fire Mage ready for use, that magic behaves according to fundamental scientific principles. Spells are cast and contained in machinery, whether that's colourfully named weaponry or the magic mirrors that function as phones or computer monitors do for us.
You won't need to understand quantum theory or probability matrices to enjoy this novel, just acknowledge that there are rigid boundaries around what's possible in this world. You can't just wish for something and wham, it shows up, and, quite frankly, that's a good thing. It grounds this novel in reality, even if it isn't our reality.
Another obvious reason to enjoy this book is because Haldron Stonebender goes by Hal and I'm automatically a fan of every novel featuring a primary character named Hal. This particular Hal doesn't wear a kilt and isn't likely to be based on me (I may be that stubborn but I've never had an issue with orcs), but he's still a Hal and that's cool.
A wider reason to dig the book is that it unfolds not just like a cop show but like a film noir cop show. The cottage that Simon and Hal breach early may or may not also be involved with Azeri bomb-makers and they'll pursue the line of inquiry because they're professionals, but the presence of a high elf doing blood magic spins them into another investigation, one watched by a representative of the elves very carefully indeed.
So, what we really have here are potentially two stories, which may or may not be linked, and a third wheel for our leads to work around. She's an elf, a Gray Ranger at that, which makes as dangerous as her surname suggests: she's Sylvie Graystorm, another worthy character. And, while none of these are PIs, they have to follow an uncertain and dangerous trail without much coordination with their departments, because the higher ups are too busy with politics and are likely to shut down anything they suggest.
So, lots of reasons to read this. How about reasons not to read this? Well, I can't come up with too many. I'm not a big fan of the font and the book is a little heavy for only three hundred pages, but shrug. That's all I can muster for negatives. The cover's fantastic and the contents are even better. Right now, moguls should be arguing about how much they want to spend on the TV show adaptation and who to cast in multi-species roles
And I want, not a sequel per se, but more books set in this world, hopefully but not necessarily featuring these characters. There's a lot more to tell us about this world and I look forward to listening. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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