Harry Connolly's Game of Cages is the second volume in the Twenty Palaces series, which began with Child of Fire (2009) and will continue with Circle of Enemies, due sometime in 2011. Connolly, in a few short stories in Black Gate, demonstrated an ability to tell a story that naturally and effortlessly made the reader want to keep reading, especially in "Soldiers of a Dying God" (Black Gate #10).
This quality, for the most part, stays with him at novel length. Anyone with a taste for the sort of things he writes, in a specialized but very popular sub (sub sub sub) genre of fantasy, will find these books page-turners. The genre is fantasy; the subgenre is dark fantasy; the sub-subgenre is urban dark fantasy; and the sub-sub-subgenre is hardboiled/noir urban dark fantasy. Or we could even get in another level under "urban fantasy": "supernatural detective/enforcer" dark urban fantasy, which is enormously popular right now, and then characterize what we have here as the hardboiled/noir subset. Perhaps we could call it a sub4genre.
The narrator of both novels, Ray Lilly, a tough but decent ex-car thief and ex-con, is a "wooden man"—a sort of point man/stalking horse/tethered goat—affiliated with Annalise, one of the "peers" of the Twenty Palaces Society. The peers, on whom the Society is centered, are ruthless sorcerers, in some cases hundreds of years old, who protect the earth from predators—endlessly varied "weird supernatural creatures out of the Empty Spaces" (p. 7), the void beyond our world—and from the sorcerers who summon them. Or from wannabe sorcerers who think the predators are cool and have little conception of their true danger: a single loose predator could end all life on earth.
One can read Game of Cages without having read Child of Fire and experience only mild confusion, similar to that experienced by the reader of Child of Fire. That book starts as if it were itself a sequel, giving the reader the sense of coming in at the second volume of a series, with Ray's first adventure only alluded to. The effect, presumably intentional, is to push the reader a little off-kilter, to give a sense of suddenly being plunged into something complicated that one must pick up on as it happens, and to evoke curiosity about what's gone before and the underpinnings of the world Ray finds himself in.
The two books have many similarities. Neither is tightly-plotted. For the most part, they both proceed by hugger-mugger: Ray and a partner are set down in a small, rural community where a monster is killing innocent people, including children; he investigates, fights some people, helps others, and basically knocks around, captured by and escaping from bad guys, discovering the source of supernatural difficulties, getting closer and closer to the central monster; and then, through whatever complications the plot has entailed, he faces the monster with only his own resources.
Unfortunately, Game of Cages gets off to a rocky start with a long and confusing set piece in and around the house where a predator that looks like an animal (it's described by bedazzled observers as a "dog") is being auctioned, after having been in captivity for decades, to a crowd of mostly very bad people. Ray and Catherine, an "investigator" for the Twenty Palaces Society, eavesdrop on and observe several groups of people whose names they don't know. We get descriptions as names: "Well-Spoken Woman," "Tattoos," etc. It soon becomes hard to tell who's who and, more importantly, who's against whom, among the various villains.
Presumably the peers are stretched too thin to use them for simple information-gathering, but Catherine, her job, and her role in the story are a bit problematic and weaken this novel. Catherine has no special abilities or powers, but she's sent to infiltrate and report back on an extremely hazardous situation, among people fully capable of killing an intruder without compunction, with only Ray as protection, which seems hard to believe. It is, in fact, unclear why a peer—or a peer and an investigator—isn't merited by the presence of a predator (especially as not one but two peers come on the scene later in the novel). Catharine's character also seems inconsistent—sometimes friendly, sometimes barely likable. She doesn't add much to the story, and there's no driving urgency between her and Ray, as there is between him and the utterly ruthless Annalise. Child of Fire starts with Annalise determined to kill Ray for a betrayal (part of that unwritten "Volume 0")—an aspect of the book later neglected, though it doesn't matter much by then. When Annalise finally surfaces in Game of Cages, it’s a bit too late to make up for her absence up to that point.
While the worst of the opening scene's confusion eventually passes, the rest of the book gives us a raft of secondary characters who can be difficult to keep track of, especially since many only live briefly after being introduced. Added to the usual wandering here and there, fighting this one and that one, being captured and escaping, there's even more of a sense of confusion and running around in this book than in the first.
Both books are violent and have a high body count. Many of the victims are innocent—attacked by evil forces, or possessed by evil and stoppable only by extreme violence—and some of them are children. The slaughter highlights the remorselessness of both the predators, who have no more consideration for innocence or youth than would a leopard, and of the Society, which is willing to cause quite a bit of "collateral damage" to destroy predators and those who summon them.
At times Ray is forced to involve himself in the ruthlessness, though he tries to be decent and suffers a certain amount of self-laceration when he has to kill relative innocents. He describes a descent into "everything that was raw and evil in this world" (p. 320), but Connolly doesn't really convey it. The sense of remorse, the awareness of his own brutality, is perhaps necessary for Ray to retain our sympathy, but the emotions are described, not evoked. They do not rise up off the page.
We get more clues about the Palaces and the Society in this book, including an allusion to the current number of palaces, and a mention that Ray once visited the Deeps and saw where the Predators come from. None of this is elaborated, but given the series's trajectory so far, it seems that Ray is moving deeper into the Society. Perhaps his humanity is being slowly burned away by necessary savagery on his way to becoming a peer, or at least to a choice about that. Despite Ray's trajectory into the "raw and evil," a typical marker of noir fiction, there's a more telling and palpable first-person descent into evil in, for instance, John Christopher’s The Sword of the Spirits YA trilogy (beginning with The Prince in Waiting), to say nothing of the first two Godfather films.
The merging of noir and dark fantasy has been progressing in a manner gratifying to fans of both genres. While there have been psychic and supernatural detectives for over a century, perhaps the real start of the sub4genre was William Hjortsberg's 1978 novel Falling Angel, made into the film Angel Heart in 1987, though I would call that novel horror. Also horror, but especially interesting in their mix, are some of the longer stories in Laird Barron's first collection, The Imago Sequence. But the elements are mixed in many series, including—to take some widely varying types—Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books, Simon R. Green's Nightside books, F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series, and Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, though none of these are purely hard-boiled or noir. Dresden, for example, is too light a character, not tough enough by half. Connolly's books, compared to Wilson's and Butcher's, are darker, more violent, faster-moving and, to my taste, more compelling—as I said at the beginning of this review, page-turners.
There might seem to be a contradiction between noting the flaws in Game of Cages and that characterization. But page-turners can be flawed. There's something in Connolly's writing, his invention, his choice of what to show, and his pacing, that makes his writing great fun and a constant draw. I always wanted to find out what happened next right now; I always wanted to turn to the next chapter; I always wanted to get back to these books when I had to leave off from them.
It's possible to pinpoint some of the reasons. I haven't seen so many chapter-ending cliffhangers since the last time I read a Burroughs novel (that's E. R., not William). A crude tactic, perhaps, but used well here. There's also the perhaps equally crude pull of sheer story. These are purely and simply what I would call, deriving a term from C. S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism (1961), novels of event, where the interest is in what happens, in events coming on in a rapid tumble. What's the nature of the next threat? How will the protagonist fare against it? Who will live, who will die? How will he get out of this one? In reading novels of event, we are voluntarily manipulated. They evoke a sense of danger or triumph which we share vicariously with the protagonist. It's no more sophisticated than Pauline dangling off a cliff, but still effective.
Besides the pull of sheer event, story, or vicarious identification with risk and triumph, there's an ineffable quality of style in page-turners, a quality of compulsiveness that some writers evoke—unpredictable, hard to pin down, and unfairly distributed. Anyone experienced in reading the fiction of event knows there's "good stuff" and not so good, even if the difference between the two isn't always easy to pinpoint. Connolly writes the good stuff. He starts in media res with action and continues with action. His hero is flawed but triumphant, not only ultimately, but interimly. He's deadly, doesn't usually pull his punches, and operates, more or less, with impunity; part of the vicarious pull of the action hero is, perhaps sadly, the attractiveness of identifying with someone who can exert power and strike back at enemies. Still, Ray is human and decent enough to salve our conscience, while we vicariously enjoy the nearly unlimited and amoral exercise of power exhibited by Annalise, who has almost no feelings, and provides the frisson of excitement provoked by unpredictable violence.
Despite the compulsiveness of the reading experience, after two books in a row I found my interest beginning to flag. That doesn’t mean any of what I've said is untrue. It just means that you can't live on potato chips and ice cream alone. For some readers, "novels of event" are like that, and we need variety in our diet. But unless the series goes very far south in quality, I will read all the Twenty Palaces novels, because Connolly knows how to make them sheer fun, and I'd be predisposed to read any other sort of book he writes, as well.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.
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