Thursday, October 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #277: Good Guys by Steven Brust

I'm going to lead off with something trivial -- I apologize, but that's just the way my mind operates. This has nothing deep to do with how Good Guys works or doesn't work, but it's a Chekov's Gun that I kept waiting to be fired but remained stubbornly on the mantelpiece throughout the whole book.

The main character in this book -- possibly others, possibly the narrative, but I can't find citations right now -- always refers to any higher-level authority as "PO-lice." He does this not just for the mundane authorities, where it could be understood as the way he speaks, but also to the more secretive arms of the already secret society to which he belongs. He does not otherwise speak in dialect.

I spent all of Good Guys expecting to learn that the Public Order folks -- who are like lice because they're always in your hair, maybe -- are now coming down on him. This does not happen. We are meant to take "PO-lice" as the way he speaks, and not indicative of anything in particular.

Please keep that in mind as (or if) you read Good Guys.

Good Guys is a standalone solo contemporary fantasy novel by Steven Brust, one of the vanishingly few standalone solo novels in his career. The last one was Agyar in 1993, before that was Cowboy Feng's Space Bar & Grille in 1987, and before that was To Reign in Hell in 1984. That's it. He also co-writes something with a female co-author roughly once a decade -- The Gypsy with Megan Lindholm in 1992, Freedom & Necessity with Emma Bull in 1997, and The Incrementalists and The Skill of Our Hands with Skyler White in 2013 and 2017. (I joke that he had to write two novels with White because he missed a decade.) Otherwise, he's mostly focused on his "Vlad Taltos" series, with fifteen main novels in thirty-four years, plus a Dumas-esque fractical trilogy and the early sidebar Brokedown Palace.

Good Guys has a author's note that attributes the idea to Brust's friend and poker teacher Chris Wallace, but it also bears a lot of similarities to The Incrementalists. The title Incrementalists were a secret society of semi-immortals (they are minds that can attach to new bodies each generation, accreting some traits from the new person but mostly staying the same) with magical powers who worked quietly behind the scenes to make the world better.

In Good Guys, our heroes are members of the Spanish Foundation, a secretive worldwide organization of mortals with magical powers that works mostly to keep magic secret and to some degree to rein in abusive magic-users. Their organization formed from a schism during the Spanish Civil War within the older, richer Roma Vindices Mystici (which mostly concentrates on pure research, but occasionally subcontracts take-care-of-that-guy work to the Foundation), and the two secret societies have a weird, complex relationship that Brust wanders through during the course of this novel, but never quite explains on any level -- neither what that relationship actually is, or what it officially is.

Good Guys is, oddly, both overcomplicated and too simplified for its own good. Brust tells the story with overlapping narrators, in both first and third person POVs, and that first-person narrator is the person many of the third-person viewpoints are trying to find.  That aspect is a lot like a certain kind of traditional detective thriller: the detective's viewpoint is in third, for seriousness and omniscience, and the killer's is in first, for immediacy and fiendish color. But Brust throws in a lot of other third-person viewpoints while still keeping each of them a limited third -- this isn't a third-person omniscient book, but a book with what feels like too many third-person limited viewpoints.

The simplification is mostly in the worldbuilding: we only see a few applications of magic (primarily as a method of travel), and they're not that exciting. Good Guys is set in a world where magic works, but magic is boring, and the people who do magic live on minimum wage, doing tedious paperwork and dull detective work. There are points where Good Guys feels like Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" with all of the Lovecraft surgically extracted and the savage satire turned into either something milder or something very deeply hidden. (Our central Foundation character is a black man, and there's some racial politics very deeply embedded in his viewpoint -- so deeply that I bet a lot of readers won't even notice.)

So, anyway: Good Guys is minor Brust, discursive in the manner of the recent Taltos books without having the built-up depth of characterization and worldbuilding to ground that discursiveness. I think it wants to be a seriocomic book about what it means to be on the side of right, and how you can tell if you are, but it muddies itself up and doesn't provide any strong contrasts. Even our serial killer is a decent guy with understandable motivation.

Good Guys, if it has a moral, is the opposite of noir. It seems to be saying that we're all kinda Good Guys, in our own ways, and that nobody's all that bad, even the evil wizards who destroy lives and the serial killers who take them out. But, again, that's muted in the end: Brust is a poker player, and allows the reader to infer that is his hand without actually laying it out on the table.

If you're looking for a decent urban fantasy, Good Guys certainly fits the bill. Brust, as always, is a pleasant, entertaining writer who has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and will only stoop to tell you something once (or, maybe, if it's really important, twice). But there's much better Brust and much better urban fantasy, if you're picky in either direction.

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