Sunday, January 01, 2012
So the fact that I'm managing to review Circle of Enemies -- the third, and last for now, book in Harry Connolly's excellent and tough-minded "Twenty Palaces" series of urban fantasies -- well after it was published in September and after Connolly learned in late October that his publisher wouldn't be wanting any more of them any time soon  only feels like a lost opportunity. I mean, I absolutely beamed about the previous book, Game of Cages, last year, and clearly that didn't help, did it?
Still, I wish I could do something. Game of Cages was that good, and Circle of Enemies is just as good -- and it extends and expands the world of the prior novel in a natural, organic way. Ex-car thief Ray Lilly is still just a magical grunt in the battle between the vicious, autocratic, faction-torn (and slowly dying) Twenty Palaces Society and the growing number of rogue sorcerers that stumble into the ways of power and summon hideous extradimensional predators, usually without adequate safeguards.  But he clearly has a knack for surviving, and that's something the Society values -- they're made up of the cannon fodder of the past few centuries who didn't die when they should have, and clawed their ways up to power. So he's still a minor nobody, but, maybe, he's a minor nobody to keep an eye on, assuming he manages to keep surviving.
But that's never a guarantee, since those predators promise great power to the humans that summon them, and the teeth in the deals only come clear when its far too late. Ray and the Society, essentially, are battling all human weakness -- lust, avarice, fear, anger, deceit, pride -- and that is endless, while they are not.
This time, Ray is dragged back into his own past; the group of car thieves he ran with before he was dragged into the Society's business are being killed by magic, and one of them -- Carmella, a girl he loved, or wanted to -- materializes in his Seattle apartment to blame him. So he heads back south, to Los Angeles, and he finds that it's true: his old friends have gotten wrapped up with magic, they do have predators within them, currently contained by spells, which give them superhuman power. But no spells last forever, and when a predator is freed, everything else is prey.
As in Game of Cages, Ray's aim has to shift from saving his friends -- dealing with predators is like growing up; once you do it, there's no going back to what you were before -- to containing them, finding the source, and, if he can, killing the sorcerer who seduced them: Wally King, who first dragged him into the world of the Society. And doing that is fiendishly difficult: his friends will die soon, inevitably destroyed by the predators inside their bodies, but they have those predators' powers until then. Wally King is even more formidable -- and then there are the more mundane threats and dangers to a small group of organized criminals in a big city like LA.
Connolly writes noir fantasy; his books might share the shelf with the legions of cute girls with tramp stamps and werewolf boyfriends, vampire protectors and super-special magical abilities, but they're something entirely different. The Twenty Palaces books come from the world of Jim Thompson and David Goodis, where all choices are bad and all ends are horrible -- where just surviving one more day and keeping yourself from getting into more trouble is a major achievement. The magic in these books has the danger and threat of old fairy tales and worse: touching it once marks a person for life.
And Ray Lilly is a great character: tough but critically damaged, and getting worse with every step he takes forward along the Twenty Palaces path. He knows that the people he works for are monsters, and that working for them will turn him into a monster, too -- but the sorcerers outside the society are even worse. Connolly clearly has plans for Ray Lilly, though those will have to be put on hold for a while -- but, for now, we do have the three books Connolly did write in this series, and that's not nothing.
 And nearly two months after I read it, with all that implies about the memory and focus I can bring to bear on this review.
 This series is a little like Charles Stross's "Laundry" books, without the leavening of humor and the government agencies that at least want to do the right thing (as long as the paperwork is done correctly first). Connolly's world has equally hideous Lovecraftian monsters lurking in the angles of spacetime, though the means to summon them are somewhat different, but there's no authority to run to, no legitimate force with any power whatsoever, just a decaying and decadent secret society that can only lose in the end.