Harry Connolly recently wrote an interesting guest post on Charlie Stross’s blog about a way to sort thrillers into two categories, high and low. I bring that up, because his recent first novel Child of Fire, the first in the Twenty Palace series, is strongly in the category of the low category. Though I wouldn’t categorize the book as thriller, rather it’s part of the whole urban fantasy genre. If you think Harry Dresden, you’re pretty close in style. Although, since it’s written by a man, it’s nearly devoid of any romance elements (somehow only women writing in the genre bring these in, I’ve never seen such a obvious split in a genre along male/female lines like in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre).
The low distinction fits well, since the main character is easy to relate to, not because of his backstory, but because of his power level and his all-too human reactions to the events he partakes in. He’s capable, but not a superman. He gets exhausted, most of his enemies are deadlier than him and even normal humans can be a threat. It brought back why I so enjoyed the early Harry Dresden novels, which were also part of the low category, before Harry became a part of the higher power structure. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about either form, it’s just easier to relate to a character when he can’t solve any problem with superior fire power or magic and has to use his wits to survive and has to back down when he’s overpowered. When he’s still human enough to feel stressed out about surviving a knife fight and when he pukes his guts out because of the horrible events he has just witnessed.
First novels in a series often have a rawness and intensity that the Xth-part of a long-running series can’t provide. Everything feels new and fresh, even though the setting of the Twenty Palace series is far from original. The secret magic society trying to save the world from supernatural threats is a pretty common genre cliche. But Connolly still manages to evoke the feeling of danger, that anything can happen, since we don’t know the rules on which the fictional setting operates. There’s a strong if indirect infusion of Lovecraftian world-building. The threats aren’t evil magicians plotting to rule the world, it’s merely that our world represents a tasty snack for extremely powerful, supernatural predators. And there’s an diverse ecology of these things in the outer dark, all of them extremely deadly once brought into our world, each of them with the power to completely annihilate humanity. Not that this would stop all the idiots who think they can control them.
To counteract that kind of threat you need people who are just as ruthless, who don’t care about slaughtering a few innocent bystanders when they can stop the predators from the outer dark, or the idiots who bring them here. Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s the setup of the first novel of the Twenty Palace series, a former criminal working as a very expendable henchman for one of the hitman of the Twenty Palace society, trying to find out why a small-town toymaker is more successful than he should be. And then everything goes AWOL. Pretty intense read, far more than I expected from a typical urban fantasy novel, with a few really gut-wrenching scenes.