It’s the mark of a good fantasy when whatever powers the characters have–whether it’s magic or shape-shifting or eternal life–there’s a price. There’s no free lunch. I lose interest pretty quickly if things come too easily for the hero, even if he has superpowers. That’s why I loved Jeff Somers’ recent addition to the urban fantasy landscape, Trickster.
Trickster is the first installment of Somers’ Ustari Cycle, and it’s well worth checking out. Somers has created a magic system in which spells are fueled by blood and mages use donors–some willing, some unwilling–to work their magic. The bigger the spell, the more blood you need, and so the most powerful mages end up being murderers. The refrain “We are not good people” comes up over and over again in the book, and Somers doesn’t mean that lightly. Even our hero, the scrappy and resourceful Lem, has moments that made me cringe in disappointment even while I cheered for him to win.
The dark, blood-based magic system is the centerpiece of Somers’ world building, but he does an exemplary job with the details of his universe, too. Everything is drawn effortlessly: The horrific underbelly that inevitably results when power can be bought with other people’s blood, the equally horrifying upper magical crust, the caste-like organization of mages… even the slang feels organic. (Blood = “Gas”, for example.) There’s a bit of a wink and a nudge to the magic of writing, too: Lem often reflects on how his quick way with “the Words” gives him an edge over more powerful mages.
While we’re talking about world-building, this is an urban fantasy that takes the “urban” part seriously. We feel every gritty back alley of Trickster‘s somewhat altered New York City. The bars, squats, mansions and lairs all felt creepily familiar, which made the magically conjured firebirds even more fantastical.
What about you, readers? Have you read Trickster? Any other gritty-dark urban fantasies to recommend?