Two books this week, both quite dense and complex in their own ways. Both first novels, and both very very good.
Toby Bell - The Vaults
The cover material presented this book as having a "dystopic 1930s setting", but I'm not seeing the dystopia. Although, perhaps, anything set in the 1930s is a little dystopic. Certainly, the government of The City is corrupt, but a corrupt government does not a dystopia make. Other than that, I was very happy with the book.
It was very noir, with one of those plots that builds slowly on itself, circling and circling the point and slowly accreting facts until you arrive at the end and everything makes some sort of sense. There were multiple character view points , which was very nice, although shifting abruptly from one character to another with each chapter was a little jarring in places. Over all, though, the technique was well done, and gave the narrative depth. The character names struck me as a little inventive - perhaps to blur the lines of which city, if any, The City represents. At any rate, the principle characters were Arthur Puskis, the archivist (he works in the Vaults); Frank Frings, the muckraking journalist; and Ethan Poole, the socialist private eye (and former college football player, and WWI veteran). Other characters included Feral Basu, who does dirty work for the mayor (and is, perhaps, East Indian); Reiff deGraffenreid, a criminal who we never actually meet, although he plays an important role; Joos VanVosen, a former legal transcriptionist for the city, and current amateur crime historian; and Red Henry, former boxer and current mayor of the City.
The plot focused on 1930s style machine politics (also very nicely presented), and some good gangland type stuff. The book was set in The City - possibly New York, maybe Chicago, could be Boston, or Milwaukee, or really any big US city circa 1930, which is the point. Frings, Poole, and Puskis each come into the plot at different points. Poole is involved in blackmailing one of the major businessmen in the City so that he will allow a strike (organized by Poole's girlfriend) to go ahead. Frings is following a lead involving the businessman that Poole is blackmailing, something entirely unrelated to the blackmail or the strike. Puskis is following up on a shocking error he has discovered in the Vaults - a situation where two folders for the same criminal exist, with essentially the same information, but a different photograph. All three stumble into a complicated plot by the previous mayor, designed to save the City money, which has been co-opted by the current mayor in an even more complicated plot to make the mayor money. I hope that hasn't given too much away.
At any rate, the various plot lines twist and squirm in on themselves and on each other, building to an exciting climax. An altogether satisfying book, and an excellent first novel. I would happily read more by Mr. Bell.
Anthony Huso - The Last Page
This is also a first novel. Unlike Bell, Huso has written a complicated political novel of dark fantasy with a hefty dose of steam/magicpunk tossed in for good measure.
Caliph Howl is the heir to the throne of Stonehaven. Stonehaven is on the verge of civil war, and unless Howl can keep several political and diplomatic balls in the air, while amassing potent weapons (both magical and technological), he is going to lose. He is aided, and hampered, in this by his lover, Sena.
Sena is a witch, part of a group of witches known for their espionage and assassination skills, as well as their promiscuity (in service of espionage and assassination). She has discovered an ancient magic text which, if she can open it, may be the key to saving Stonehaven. But opening the book will require her to betray Howl.
Around them both are forces, political and magical, which do not want them to succeed, and will stop at little to prevent them from achieving their various aims.
I love dense political novels. I am, as you all know, a fan of the steampunk genre (and this book has just enough of that flavor to count, I think). I'm not necessarily a fan of the dark fantasy genre - this book has a lot of blood and oogy critters, a great deal of the magic involves blood (and one of the things the various magic users are seeking is the means to do magic with someone else's blood), and the big magic (not the one that Sena is looking for, but the OTHER big magic - the atomic bomb of magic) deals with trapped souls; forcing animals, and people, to work forever, beyond death. It's a little squirm-worthy, and I can see, easily, why some might find it off-putting.
Politics, complex magic, moral dilemmas, deep realistic characters - all yummy stuff, but all things that other authors have done too. Even the zeppelins and big magic weapons combined in the same world. What does Huso offer that is truly unique? Well, let me tell you, Huso has invented a number of new languages for the book. I am not a linguist, but they look like they follow a set of fairly rigorous rules, and each is distinct and used in a fairly reasonable way. The Old Tongue (which a number of characters use periodically) has delightful accents scattered throughout the words - umlauts, cedillas, the whole bit. Additionally, Huso made very interesting use of fonts - the Unknown Tongue (the language used by magicians to effect changes to reality) uses a unique font, and the language that Sena's books is written in - the Inti'Drou Glyphs - well, there are two examples in the text, and they are very very impressive. They are huge things, all complicated lines and eerie images, like Lovecraftian beasts eating each other all over the page. Very imposing. I wish I could find you an image, but I can't - you'll have to get your own copy of the book to see them. I would almost say the glyphs are worth a trip to the library.
Initially, I wanted a pronunciation guide, eventually I found it, hidden in the back. It wasn't quite enough - a glossary would have been nice, perhaps a short note on the various languages, and I would have liked it up front - but it was almost enough, and the experience of new languages (which were, largely, translated anyway - some phrases were used repeatedly, and thus were not translated beyond the first instance. Some of the magic words were not translated) was nice.
The only other thing I would have added is more maps. This is a novel featuring a war. The campaigns don't move all that quickly, but it would have been nice to see more clearly where things were happening, and it would have been nice to see more clearly where Stonehaven fit into the broader world. This would have been nice, but, ultimately, not necessary.
A very good debut novel. Lots of praise for the knotty politics and a complicated magical system. Minor points off for lack of a full glossary and not enough maps, but full points for zeppelins and great big electric swords. If dark fantasy doesn't put you off, take a look - if dark fantasy is exactly your cup of tea, definitely take a look. I'm watching for Huso's next novel, Black Bottle.