Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: Trickster by Jeff Somers

I actually finished reading Jeff Somers' Trickster a few months ago, but it's one of those books that's stuck with me. In the interest of keeping up with my new blog-a-day goal, I figured it was worth another look. It's certainly at the top of my personal recommendation list.

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I've been on a big male-protagonist urban fantasy kick over the last few months, in no small part because that's what I'm currently writing. Trickster jumped to the top of my long to-read list because I'd heard Jeff Somers' name floating around the internet in always-positive ways, and because this video absolutely cracked me up. It was the first book I picked up in a (delightful) slew of neo-noir novels, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is something that's lacking from many of the urban fantasy novels I've read: in this world, the magic has consequences.

In Trickster, all magic is blood magic, and how much blood you use directly determines the power available for every spell. The main character, Lem, is a Trickster - the novel's parlance essentially for a magical grifter. A low-level talent with just enough ability to exclude him from the "real" world, but not enough clout to make it big among the magical muscle. Unlike most other magic users, Lem refuses to use anyone else's blood to perform his spells. The result is a narrator who is constantly drained - literally - dragging himself from scene to scene on the brink of total self destruction, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the power plays of people who are completely out of his league. People who, unlike him, have no qualms about draining anyone and everyone dry for their own benefit.

This novel is gritty and exhausting in the best kind of way, a David up against an impossible Goliath, only without the conviction or faith. If conventional noir is about man discovering the depths of their own depravity, Lem's quest is, perhaps, to find some shred of goodness in himself that he doesn't really believe is there. The refrain "we were not good people" is repeated throughout the book - sometimes you believe it, sometimes you don't, and sometimes you start to wonder what exactly that means. As with traditional noir, Lem is constantly pressed to his moral limits, forced to decide again and again how far he'll go given the right impetus. What I love about this book is that nothing is easy. The choices are hard, and the cost is always high, especially for a character that doesn't really see himself as a hero. Having magic doesn't make Lem's life easier, it doesn't make him powerful, and the few moral rules he clings to continually complicate matters and undermine his efforts.

Trickster is not, as is often said of male-POV urban fantasy novels, a spiritual successor to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, but it's own exploration of a much darker, grittier (perhaps, more urban?) fantasy world. You won't find much wisecracking, but you will find some superb, intricate writing as well as deft and elegantly written characters that are, if not conventionally likeable, unflinchingly true.

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