Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 237 (9/28) -- Game of Cages by Harry Connolly

Urban fantasy often cheats. It cheats in ways borrowed from its two great parents -- the PI novel and epic fantasy -- by having inescapable death traps and no-win situations that almost always, miraculously, all of the important characters escape. It cheats by setting up tough moral dilemmas, and then letting the main character make an end-run around the problem and save everyone. It cheats when it creates worlds with good guys who agonize over their moral choices but never have to do anything really unpleasant. It cheats, because that's what popular genres do -- readers want consolation and re-normative stories, most of the time, and readers are what fiction's all about.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I picked up Harry Connolly's second novel, Game of Cages, in large part because he wrote, in a comment on my "I just got this in the mail" post last week:
I sent it over because of your review of Jim Butcher's Changes included this sentiment: "Changes is the book where... [Harry Dresden] finally has to face up to the fact that his "I'll just save everybody, all of the time" attitude might not be precisely realistic, and that exercising power means hard choices." I'm trying to write a whole series on those hard choices so, with a typical writer's arrogance, I thought that suggested you might like my latest.
Connolly's successful in this book; his characters live in a world as dangerous as many writers say theirs is, and that danger has consequences. If he continues at this level, Connolly's "Twenty Palaces" novels could be the urban fantasy equivalent of Dennis Lehane's early Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries -- in those books, the damage was cumulative, and the reader could see the characters buckling under the weight of what they'd done and seen, unlike so many other books in so many genres with blithe violence and a five-minute sulk afterward.

Game of Cages is the second novel in this series, after Child of Fire (which I haven't read). Semi-reformed ex-con Ray Lilly -- a tough guy who's been knocked around by life a lot, and now is just trying to get by -- stumbled into the secret world of sorcery in the first book, and came out of it alive, though not unchanged. He's not a sorcerer himself, or an apprentice, or anything glamorous -- he's the "wooden man" of Annalise Powliss, a peer of the Twenty Palaces Society. And he knows a little bit more about what that implies than the reader does, at first, but not that much more. He's a quickly magicked-up grunt, disposable cannon fodder who survived unexpectedly and now is inside something he barely understands.

The magic in the Twenty Palaces books is one-half Lovecraftian -- summoning "predators" from spaces outside our universe, which can be controlled, sometimes, somewhat, but are hungry and cruel and very inhuman -- and one-half Vancean, with magicians squabbling over a few spellbooks and incantations that lose power every generation removed from the original, like a poor Xerox. The Twenty Palaces Society seems to be the remnants of the secret government of the magical world, fallen on hard times as more and more rogues have punched holes in it over the past few hundred years, and now it's focused -- as far as Ray has seen -- on stopping predators and killing anyone who tries to summon them. They're ruthless and organized and strong -- though, clearly, they haven't been enough of any of those things for a long time.

Ray fell into one situation with a predator on the loose in Child of Fire, got a little way in (some protective tattoo spells on his chest and arms, a paper "ghost knife" that can cut through anything and feels like part of him), and survived. Apparently, a lot of other people didn't, at least some of them due to Ray's direct actions. He's now part of the Twenty Palaces Society, on some level, but they don't seem to care. And he's living quietly, keeping his head down, and working as a night stocker at a grocery store somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

That's when Catherine Little, a Twenty Palaces investigator, grabs him for backup: a predator is being auctioned at a big house high above the small town of Washaway, in the North Cascades. Their job is just to reconnoiter the situation, gather intelligence, and report back -- a Society peer will handle the wet work -- but they arrive to find that the auction has ended, the winning bidder had some sort of accident on the way back down the mountain, and the predator is free.

The action that follows is taut, occasionally claustrophobic: the first half of the novel takes place that night, around that big house, with three frustrated bidders and their allies squabbling and attempting to kill each other, with breaks for chasing Ray and Catherine. And then the survivors follow the trail of that predator -- a "sapphire dog" whose tongue's touch makes humans obsessed with it to the point of murder -- down to the town of Washaway, from which there's no way out.

Ray wants to protect innocents, just like all of those other urban fantasy protagonists, but Connolly doesn't make it easy for him like so many of those other writers do. Ray isn't the best there is at what he does; he's a guy with enough magical protections and knowledge to keep him from getting killed immediately and one weapon of only limited use. And his primary job is simple and stark: kill the sapphire dog and anyone capable of summoning something similar. He does hope to be able to save the people of Washaway from the sapphire dog -- keeps hoping that even after they've been touched by the predator and turned to its ends -- but, like the real world, hopes in this novel are no guarantee of results.

Game of Cages is a tough, smart, unflinching urban fantasy novel; it's to the average vampire shagger what Ross Macdonald was to Agatha Christie. And, if Harry Connolly can keep his plots this gripping and Ray's dilemmas this compelling, he's on track to be one of the important fantasy writers of the next decade, someone who can help lift urban fantasy out of its wish-fulfillment rut.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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