BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Novice sorcerer Ray Lilly investigates strange occurrences within the small coastal town of Hammer Bay. While trying to keep his boss from executing him for his own past crimes, Lilly attempts to track down and eliminate the threat responsible for deleting children from existence.
PROS: Starts out firing with a rapid pace that doesn’t subside, author has no problem killing characters.
CONS: No innovation within the Urban Fantasy genre, lack of consistent characterization, lack of plot resolution, overuse of the same solutions to obstacles, core writing fundamentals were lacking.
BOTTOM LINE: If you are looking for a new innovative Urban Fantasy series, keep looking. Child of Fire disappoints.
There are a lot of strong Urban Fantasy series out there. Based on Child of Fire, Harry Connolly’s The Twenty Palaces Novels don’t appear destined to join that group. Mediocre at best and painful at worst, Child of Fire combines dozens of unsympathetic characters in a erratic plot that leaves as more plot points open than it manages to close. Child of Fire introduces us to one Ray Lilly, a gray character with a checkered past. When the plot hits the ground running on page 1, Ray is serving as the driver for Annalise, a senior member of the titular Twenty Palace Society. The Twenty Palace Society is a group of magicians who have taken it upon themselves to police the magical world preventing predators (evil spirits) and rogue magicians (as defined by the TPS) through executions and other zero tolerance measures. Ray and Annalise are investigating some curious activities in the town of Hammer Bay that include disappearing children, unusually successful toy companies, forgotten memories, and scorch marks. Unfortunately for the pair (and fortunately for the plot), Hammer Bay is hiding a lot more secrets than the average small town.
From the moment Connolly’s main characters enter Hammer Bay they are introduced to set after set of characters. Town bigshots who don’t want the balance of power disturbed. Police skeptical of outsiders. Local thugs looking to muscle their way to a few extra dollars. Connolly’s got them all, and multiple sets of them. The cast of characters in Child of Fire is huge and while that’s not a problem in its own right, Connolly fails to distinguish any of them beyond their stereotypical roles. If you’ve got only a half dozen archetypes you shouldn’t have two dozen characters. By the time they are all introduced, the plot gets extremely repetitive. Lilly gets kidnapped and escapes what must be a half dozen times while encountering the same sorts of people. While interactions with the local underground is a common occurrence in any type of noir fiction, changing the names and repeating the same sequence until Lilly has enough clues tires quickly. Especially when he uses the same method to escape throughout the entire book; his ghost knife.
The ghost knife is a magically infused piece of laminated paper that has the ability to cut through anything dead, inorganic, or magical. Guns/locks/magic tattoos: you name it, it cuts it. If you cut through a living person, it drains their life energy and they become passive and docile. Basically, it’s a magic lightsaber that turns opponents into coma victims instantly. Ignoring the fact that Lilly somehow keeps this object in his pocket without it falling out or stabbing himself, Lilly’s ghost knife becomes as much of a crutch as I’ve ever seen in a published novel. He uses it from the beginning of the book to the very conclusion without fail. It’s his only trick. The first time he uses it, it’s mildly intriguing (as a reference the other items in Connolly’s magic system are ribbons, tattoos and a piece of wood), by the end of the book, it’s laughable.
This in and of itself is a forgivable offense, the mischaracterizations and hanging plot points are not. One of the fundamental relationships in Child of Fire is Ray’s interactions with Annalise. The back cover blurbs that she “is looking for an excuse to kill him” but the story reads quite differently. She seems to harbor some resentment for Ray but with each passing chapter her attitude seems to change. Annalise’s feelings toward Ray rotate through several different states; hatred, indifference, acceptance, begrudging friendship, incompetence, and almost any emotion you can imagine. The reasons for the dramatic and repeated shifts in their relationship (if there are any) aren’t explained in any capacity. It reads like Connolly couldn’t exactly figure out how to make his characters interact and rather than picking one dynamic over another, he just used them all.
This haphazard style doesn’t just affect the characters, it also impacts the plot. Connolly’s interest in specific subplots seems to grow and wane throughout the book. This gets so bad that there is absolutely no resolution or closure for the third (arguably second) largest character in the book. She just exits one scene and is never seen or heard from again. Even the core plot of the book, the disappearing children which causes Ray Lilly to be physically sick with grief is left unresolved. As Ray drives away from Hammer Bay in the final pages, the true culprit responsible for the disappearances is still at large and the children and their memories are still gone. These aren’t minor dropped plotlines, these are critical elements that run through the core of the novel.
I hesitate at this point because I realize that my review is extremely long and extremely negative. To be fair, Jim Butcher’s debut novel wasn’t anything special. It wasn’t until he really developed his style and broke his repetitive plot outline that he really started to excel. Now Butcher is one of my favorite authors. Maybe future Twenty Palace novels will be better. Maybe we will finally get an explanation for all of the hints of Lilly’s back-story that Connolly drops but irritatingly never explains. Maybe he will decide that major characters shouldn’t just disappear mid-book. Maybe he will realize that well-written dialogue doesn’t need repeated “he said, she said” dialogue tags to figure out who is speaking. If he does, let me know, because I won’t be reading the follow up to find out.
I’m not sure how I should end this review. Ghost Knife. That did it.