Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: Trickster

Title: Trickster
Author: Jeff Somers
Genre: Urban Fantasy


Lem and his pal Mags are idimustari, low-level magicians who spill blood from their own veins to perform simple cons.  It's barely a living, but it's about to get much worse when they run into headfirst into the schemes of Mika Rensar, the most powerful mage in the world.  To achieve immortality, she's willing to sacrifice all life on earth.  But in a world where magic must be paid for in blood how can Lem survive her scheme--let alone foil it--when he is unwilling to use anyone's blood but his own?


First of all, if you dislike vulgar language, this book may not be for you.  The f-word makes an appearance pretty much every page.  I personally don't appreciate cursing, but in this case it doesn't seem gratuitous.  The story is told through the eyes of Lem, a street-wise con-magician; as such, it would be strange for him to observe the niceties of drawing room language.

The story begins when Lem and Mags find a dead body.  The dead body quickly leads to the discovery of a kidnapped girl named Claire, a threat from Mika Rensar and her apprentice Amir, and the realization that Mika's scheme involves killing off 99% of all life on earth.  This is 1/3 of the way through the book.  The tension definitely keeps you reading, but I wonder if Mr. Somers didn't make the stakes a little too high.  Lem is often so low on blood he's on the verge of fainting and Mags can hardly manage a spell.  Yet somehow they keep thwarting the will of the most powerful being on earth and her high-ranking apprentice?  After a while, the villains start to appear ineffective if not downright stupid.

So, let's talk about the characters.  Lem's ethical code of using only his own blood for spells makes him an appealing hero.  The kidnapped Claire shows fight and spirit and has a tragic backstory.  Sidekick Mags is a massively strong intellectually-stunted man-child.  He's meant to play Lenny to Lem's George, but I find him inconsistently drawn.  Sometimes Mags is a gentle puppy, other times he explodes in anger.  Supposedly, he can hardly do spells--yet he pulls off complex ones when it's needed.  Still, I found most of the characters well-drawn and interesting.  None of them annoyed me enough to pull me out of the story.

The author has some wonderful ideas, starting with the central one: combining magic with blood-letting.  Most of the great tragedies of history come from mages trying to gather enough blood to fuel a spell.  As Lem often points out, magicians are not good people.  The wisdom of this saying will bear out time and time again.  The tone of Trickster skews cynical, and the descriptions, while good, are often ugly.  We are taken to moldering houses, seedy bars, and cults. Still, I don't mind a touch of noir, as long as the story is compelling and I have at least one person to cheer for.  Trickster provided that.  I read it and couldn't put it down, until the very end.

Oh, the ending.  Where to begin?

First of all, I can't say whether most readers would notice or care about all the plot holes and loose threads I found--but I did notice and I did care and it grated on my nerves.  I felt mildly disheartened when I realized Claire had become the typical damsel in distress the hero had to rescue.  I disliked the torture scene.  I sighed when the author asked me to believe that his first person point of view narrator was going to die.  But those things I could overlook as a matter of personal taste.  I could not, however, overlook dropped characters, dropped themes, a pointless cynical ending, and a rushed sequel hook.

But my complaints are too numerous to be contained in the review section, so allow me to dissect them, piece by piece, in the rant.

Rant (Lots of Spoilers!)

The main moral thrust of the book is whether or not Lem will use other people's blood to work more powerful magic.  He states that, even if the other person gives you permission, using their blood is too much like rape.  It's disgusting.  It's corrupting.  But in the end, of course, it's unavoidable.  If Lem wants to save the world, he needs help.  So, two-thirds of the way into the book, he drops his code and uses other people's blood.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the last time this code ever comes into play again.  Does he suffer for breaking the code?  Not really.  Does he go back to abiding to the code?  Not that we see.  The whole moral dilemma is scooted aside so that we can get to the action.

The climax gets rolling when Lem recovers the udug, a demonic green necklace which provides the wearer a relentless stream of information: past, present, and future.  Lem gets a hold of it when he meets Claire, back on page 41.  On page 141 Mika's apprentice Amir attempts to recover the udug but is distracted by Claire, fireballs, and the arrival of police.  Lem is too busy running away to bother with the demonic artifact.  By page 274, he finally gets back to it--after days, maybe even weeks have passed.

Lem has an excuse for the delay.  What's Amir's?  It seems like the villains completely forgot to recover a rather important weapon.  Now the udug is hidden, so perhaps they can't find it.  Perhaps.  Though that's not a ringing endorsement of their skills.  But even if they don't know its exact location, they have a rough idea where it is.  Yet they don't bother to post one guard.  Strike 1 for villainous stupidity.

The udug leads Lem to a bar where fellow idimustari rally together to keep the world from ending.  The rise of this ragtag army would have been a wonderful heroic moment--but after 5 pages, the bad guys crash the party and the idimustari scatter like rats.  So much for that.  Mika reclaims the udug, but its last words to Lem is "let her take you."

It's another intriguing idea that gets dropped before it can develop properly.  What happens when Lem is taken?  He gets tortured.  That's it.  He also learns some pointless information about when the ceremony to destroy the world will take place.  But mostly just torture.  Amir gets the information he needs from Lem and leaves him for dead.  Because it was so difficult to pull out a gun and shoot this pesky idimustari who has thwarted his plans for the last few weeks.  Strike 2 for the villains.

Lem, of course, recovers.  At this point, the Mika and Amir begin their complicated death ritual, which requires total concentration, exact precision, and no interruptions--without a single guard posted to keep annoying good guys from interfering.  Now, I could buy trading security for secrecy--if it wasn't extremely obvious that every single idimustari knew of their plan.  Seriously, would it kill them to have a few tough guys with guns and some extra evil magicians keeping watch?

Especially when anyone can tap into the massive energy source they're creating.  It's like heaping guns in every single room of an empty house and hoping no one will use them.  Years and years spent planning this delicate ritual and they can't even post a guard.  That's it.  3 strikes, you're out.  I have lost all respect for the villains.

In the end, Lem saves Claire and keeps Mika from completing the spell.  He does not, however, prevent total disaster.  Tragedy upon tragedy piles up in unrelated cities: mass suicides, drownings, shooting rampages, all within minutes of each other, hundreds of thousands of deaths.  Our intrepid narrator sums it up this way: "all [we] had done was kill a bunch of people to no [f'ing] purpose."

Now, I find this a rather depressing and cynical conclusion.  But that's not the worst of it.  Up until this moment, the author has maintained the illusion that Trickster essentially takes place in our world.  These astonishing calamities shatter this illusion.  It is no longer our world.  We have spun off into an alternate reality.

This, I suppose, could be used to set up a sequel.  The secret's out.  The citizens of "real" world will ask questions, and the magicians will either need to ban together to hide their secret or reveal themselves.  Instead, a random character named Mel pops up out of nowhere, tells us Mika is alive and willing to try for immortality again, and invites Lem to join her in the war.  That's our infuriating sequel hook.

First of all, where was Mel and her army when Lem needed them, when the world was on the brink of distraction and no one but two idimustari around to save it?  Second of all, Mika's recycled schemes to destroy the world no longer interest me.  She's lost her credibility and anything she tries is bound to be more of the same old incompetence.

One last thing.  Claire--the damsel in distress who inspires Lem to ditch his code and fight the two most powerful mages in the world almost single-handly--disappears.  She is there one paragraph, gone the next.  Lem rather bleakly concludes she ran off to get away from all this craziness.  I don't really buy that.  There are characters floating around who have reason to kidnap her all over again.  It makes me angry at Lem for not even considering the possibility she might have gotten in trouble, for giving her up for loss the moment he's saved her.

So is Claire so incredibly rude, selfish and insensitive that she'd abandoned the guys who nearly rescued her without so much as a goodbye?  Or did she just get kidnapped for the fourth or fifth time this book?  Neither situation is appealing.  Claire is arguably the third most important character in the book.  After investing so much emotion in her, we (the audience and Lem alike) deserve more than for her to just drop off the face of the earth.

And really that's the last straw.  At this point, it seems like the author has gone out of his way to make the story as inconclusive as possible.  Maybe he's doing this to make a point about the randomness of life, maybe he's trying to set up a sequel.  I don't care.  Stories are not life: they need a point or what's the purpose of reading?  And once I lose my trust in the author's basic story-telling abilities, I'm not interesting in a sequel.

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