Those who know Tim Pratt from his charming short stories such as “Little Gods” (Strange Horizons, 2002) and the recent Hugo Award winner “Impossible Dreams” (2007) may be a bit confused by his new novel, Blood Engines. It is perhaps wise of him to have penned it under the barely there pseudonym of T. A. Pratt, for his two writing personae are indeed different. Those who are accustomed to Pratt's more lyrical prose, as found in his short stories, may find themselves wondering what happened to the little god of poignant fantasy once they open his new book.
Blood Engines is an urban fantasy starring kick-ass “crime lord” sorceress Marla Mason. Marla runs Felport, a city “back east,” but she spends the entirety of her first adventure in San Francisco trying to track down a magical talisman called the Cornerstone in order to save herself from the deadly spell of a rival sorceress. A tough, no-nonsense customer, Marla is paired with Rondeau, a friendly and often horny spirit who has adopted human form, and a washed-out TV actor nicknamed B, who has the ability to speak to the myriad spirits that haunt the dumpsters and storm drains of the City by the Bay. Over the course of the tale, the three must grapple with body-switching Chinese sorcerers in Chinatown, a Pornomancer in the Castro, and assorted witches, gods, and cannibals, who pop up in unlikely places.
These days, whenever anyone writes a female-driven urban fantasy, it is inevitably compared to Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. Growing up on Ripley and Buffy, I've always liked killer babes, but I never did take to Anita's forced bravado. Having decided that Ms. Blake's attachment to her stuffed-toy penguin was about as deep as she was ever going to get, I failed to finish Guilty Pleasures and have been cursed in my attempts to enjoy the supernatural-babe genre ever since. It's a personal failing, of course, but like a pile of Lovecraft forced on a literary snob, the very sight of a mass-marketed paperback sporting a hot woman in dark shadows makes me sigh.
I am pleased to disclose, then, that Blood Engines is a step up from the usual drill. If not exactly brilliant, it is certainly well researched and enthusiastically written. The backstory has been thought out to such a degree that I had to keep checking the Net to make sure this wasn't book three in the series (and yes, kiddies, more Marla is on the way). While never going into belabored detail, Pratt manages to sketch Marla's origins with a deft, confident hand—and create a sense of mystery. Her previous tangles with a wizard named Somerset, for example, are referenced in passing, but one is sure the full story already exists in Pratt's mind. The details he gives about some of Marla's past exploits are tantalizing. An army of pigeons? What was that about?
Speaking of pigeons, Pratt is also blessed with a gift for humor. I resisted the usual hard-ass banter between Marla and Rondeau at first (their premiere exchange is the one exception to the “not belaboring past points” rule), but when the bizarre and charismatic B starts talking to a sewer drain—and is answered—I began to thaw. Perhaps part of what makes Hamilton's Anita fall flat for me is her penchant for taking things so seriously. There's no danger of that with Pratt. His vision may be chock-full of blood and battle, but he never descends into melodrama. Once the action picks up, the humor is often laugh-out-loud funny, with the three central characters developing a delightful repartee. A plotline involving a sorcerer named Mutex, who plans to resurrect an ancient goddess with the help of an army of hummingbirds and poisonous frogs, climaxes in hilarity (and handmade flame throwers) but is also meticulously researched. The goddess in question, one Tlaltechutli, is indeed as she appears in legend: a monster with mouths for knees, who needs no embellishment. Those frogs and hummingbirds (what’s with the avian fixation?) aren't just random details, either.
Not everything in Blood Engines is a home run. A scene involving a sex party in the Castro fails to arouse—and includes some icky ghost sodomy. Marla just might be the antithesis of Anita Blake, whose stories have been increasingly berated for their ever-expanding sexual content, but the lack of hot sex in this book may frustrate readers of the genre who have come to expect some heavy breathing. Pratt, certainly capable of sensual prose, confines Marla to some stereotypical whip action and, like his heroine, skimps on the sexy in favor of the utilitarian. Marla's down-to-business attitude is reflected in every aspect of the story. San Francisco, for instance, a city of incredible sights and color, is reduced to bare-bones tourist shots, making you wonder why it was important to set the story there at all. The Japanese Tea Garden is quickly described as “pagodas, stone bridges, paths and trees”—hardly evocative.
It is also worth noting that having Marla constantly pine for her native Felport while spending all of her time in San Francisco is a curious way to introduce both the character and her main stomping ground. Future books may shed light on this choice, but it remains an oddity that something so vital to Marla would be viewed through a telescope in her premiere adventure. And while Pratt's avoidance of Anitaesque soliloquizing is to be applauded, one wonders why he couldn't give Marla a more compelling psyche. Instead of really getting into her head, he often resorts to simply telling us about her—as in this description of the moment before she leaps into battle:
Marla looked around at her companions and showed her teeth. This was it. This was the kind of shit she lived for, what she got out of bed in the morning hoping for and went to bed at night dreaming of. (Review copy, p. 318)
You don't get more obvious than that, but then, this was never meant to be Dickens. And with his kooky ensemble of whacked-out wizards, washed-out actors, and catty, bisexual sidekicks, Pratt redeems much of the creative downsizing he has endured in the switch from lyricism to urban sprawl. Fans of grunge fantasy or pure entertainment for the sake of same would do well to check out this one. As Marla might quip, “There's a new girl in town.”
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. Her latest short story will soon appear in On Spec. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.