Friday, October 18, 2013

Circle Of Enemies

Have you ever had something that you enjoyed so much that you couldn't bring yourself to be finished with it? Like the final episode of a favorite show, or the last piece of fancy chocolate in a box? Circle Of Enemies, the last book in Harry Connolly's Twenty Palaces series, has long been that precious, preserved, one-last-thing for me. It's been probably two years since I first devoured the (chronologically) first three books of the series, and it took me this long to let myself read the last one, because I just didn't want to let the series end.

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A little background: I actually discovered the Twenty Palaces series in probably the weirdest way I've ever discovered any book. That is, through this blog post, where the author announces and discusses the cancellation of the series. I admit, it seems like the last thing that would compel a person to pick up the book - hey, these books didn't sell well, the last one ends on a cliff hanger, and there won't be any more! Where do I sign up, right? But the author's voice in that article is compelling, the story sounded great, and the first chapter (free on his site) was amazing, so I got a copy of the first book, Child of Fire, on my kindle and started reading...

...and could not stop. I swear to god it was the single most compulsively readable book I've ever picked up. I started reading it one day in the afternoon and just one more chapter'd it all through the night and until the sun was up and the book was over and I was feeling a little dizzy. I read the second book, Game of Cages, with similar voracity, and then picked up his self-published prequel, Twenty Palaces, and gulped it down, too. But after I bought Circle of Enemies, I couldn't bring myself to pick it up. All three of the other books end on cliff hangers. Really, it's less that they end and more that they just stop (which incidentally, to me, is the only real weak point of the whole series - the lack of book-level resolution, especially in the first book). I knew ahead of time to expect a cliffhanger, and as much as I wanted the book, I didn't want the series to be over, and I really didn't want to be left wondering. Like many other 20P fans, in my heart of hearts I was holding out for him to announce he was going to self pub another one.

I finally changed my mind when I heard Harry Connolly had launched a Kickstarter campaign*, not for 20P, but for a new epic fantasy series called The Great Way. The promise of more great books somehow soothed the burn of having no-next-book, and to be honest got me hungry for his fantastic writing again. So I dusted off the old mobi file, fired up my kindle, and started reading...

...and couldn't stop. Even with the gap in between, I was swept back into the series immediately. In this book, for the first time we actually start to glimpse the inner workings of the Twenty Palaces Society. Ray Lilly, who is supposed to be the Society's cannon fodder, has not only survived everything they've put in front of him, but has had success after success at fighting back the forces of darkness where much higher ranking members have failed. For the first time, his boss Annalise is actually sharing information and starting to treat him as something a little more than a human shield... right around the same time Ray begins to question whether or not this is still what he wants after all.

As with the chronologically-first/last published book, Ray is pulled into a situation where friends from his past have become infected with predators - the insatiably hungry world-eating monsters from another dimension the 20P Society is sworn to kill. Their contamination virtually ensures their deaths, and Ray feels indirectly responsible for what's happened to them. The main action of the book consists of Ray trying to find a way to save them without letting the predators go free, which is no small task. Now, I guess it's a somewhat commonly held opinion that Ray Lilly isn't a sympathetic (or even likable) character - the author himself mused over this in the blog post I linked earlier. But I'll fight anyone who says so.

Really, the fact that Ray is a genuinely good guy with 100%, Grade-A, shit for luck is what makes these books work. The 20P society is full of ruthless killers who believe there's no room to be concerned about collateral damage: stopping the predators has to come first. But especially in Circle of Enemies, Ray is plagued with guilt over the lives he's had to take to keep the predators from getting a foothold in our world. Even where he fails, the fact that he tries so hard and wants so badly to do right is a big part of what makes the series so compelling. Ray is a criminal and a murderer, but by circumstance rather than intent. He does the best he can with the crap he's handed, and feels deep remorse for killing even when he has no other alternative. Unlike other male UF protagonists whose greatest trials are of their own making (I'm looking at you, Harry Dresden and Atticus O’Sullivan), Ray is a guy who's spent his whole life in the wrong place at the wrong time, but is always trying to set the shitstorms he walks into to rights, and atone for his own wrongs. And the books are a lot of fun to read because, damn, does he walk into some shitstorms. 

I'll also say that (perhaps because I had a couple years to steel myself for it) the ending was not as cliff-hangery as I'd feared - certainly not nearly so much so as the first book. It's clearly open ended, and almost feels like Ray's journey is really just beginning, but it's a satisfying close, at least, to what feels like the first act of a play that (tragically) likely won't be finished. Still, I would recommend these books to anyone who would sit still to listen. Not only does Harry Connolly create a compelling, dark world, but does a fantastic job of populating it with nightmarish new creatures rather than relying on your conventional demons and ghouls. And Ray Lilly is an unlikely hero I can really get behind.

*As of this writing, Harry Connolly's Kickstarter for The Great Way is entering its final stretch, with all the major stretch goals unlocked. If you're interested even a little in his work, a $12 pledge will get you the first 20 Palaces book as well as two other books in addition to the entire Great Way trilogy. Which, if you ask me, is a helluva deal. Personally? I can't wait!

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