After reading io9’s recommendation that if people liked the show Angel, they should pick up Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series I requested the first book from the library, Child of Fire, and eagerly started reading. Child of Fire is an intense, engaging, and gripping tale. The story is full of fury, colleague antagonism, and magical tattoos. Recently released from prison, Ray Lily has been recruited by the Twenty Palace Society as a driver for an operative, Annalise. Their mission is to find the person behind the dark magic killing off children in one particular town. The children die horribly, burning up in flames, reduced to worms, and promptly forgotten by their parents. (This happens in the first page of the book, if that sounds too disturbing for you, then you wont like the book). During their first attempt to subvert the black magic Annalise, a woman of unbreakable strength, has somehow been compromised and her waning life force puts both of them in jeopardy. Ray must figure out who is behind the magic, why it is happening to the town’s children, and save Annalise, the woman who is trying to find any excuse to kill him.
Child of Fire is an intense, disturbing, crime thriller melody with a supernatural underscore. It is also a tad confusing at first because the reader is plopped down in the middle of Ray Lily’s story. For a moment I thought I had picked up a book later in the series, but then I realized Connolly was setting up to delving into Ray’s background. Which I eagerly anticipated, and yet, not much is revealed about where Ray and Annalise come from even by the end of the book, making putting the story aside almost insufferable, and I need the next book, yesterday! (If only Amazon’s yesterday shipping did exist! But also for libraries, for poor people). Once I double checked that I had started with the correct first book in the series and realized I was supposed to be confused about Ray’s background, I was quickly drawn into the story because of the main character, Ray.
Ray is one of the best characters I have stumbled across in a long time when it comes to the almost mundane being thrust into the supernatural world. He is one of the best characterizations of someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but fights his way to the end, simply because he doesn’t want to die. Staying alive can be an extremely powerful motivator, allowing people to saw off their own limbs and lift cars. But this strength of will, this desire to simply survive, is rarely captured so honestly in the sci/fi genre. Usually, a character is conveniently given a magical solution and all is better now. Not so with Ray, in fact, nothing really gets better and if he triumphs (in the most ambiguous way) it is solely because he refuses to stop trying to live. I found myself wishing Ray was a female character to say, “See world, this is what a strong female lead looks like. Someone who messes up, who makes mistakes, who survives and nothing more. She has no “Chosen One” superpowers to kill vampires, She has no Peeta looking out for her, She survives because She never gives up. She uses whatever is at her disposal, even bazookas, to kill the people who are killer her, because she refuses to stop trying.” But though I wish the character were a female one, I was much impressed with Ray, that I set aside my own desires for his gender transformation and delighted in the grounded and relatable person that he was.
While Annalise is an extremely strong female character, she is also an extremely strange one. Her body is covered in magical warding tattoos that which leaves her skin numb, she can’t feel anything, and she grows stronger by eating raw meat. Which is talked about a lot, and is disgusting, but whatever. Annalise is a complete badass, and even though she is significantly hurt (which is explained brilliantly, but no spoilers, so just understand that though she is indestructible, for this one moment it makes sense why she is not), but she has been given that extra supernatural handicap to compensate for- what? I’m not sure. I get that where Annalise is in her life, who she is to the Society, means she must be as invulnerable as possible. But, that also means there is not voluntary vulnerability on her part, and I found myself less engaged with her well being. What I also enjoyed was the complete lack of a romantic entanglement between Annalise and Ray, this is not a romance peeps, this is a straight up crime thriller (with a supernatural bent) and the two of them are merely working together out of necessity and because the Society forced them to do so. While they grow to grudgingly respect each other, sorta, there is no Kissy Kissy to ruin the story. And a romantic entanglement between the two main characters would ruin a story where egregious horrors are being perpetrated on children, because time spent away from ridding the town of absolute evil just to have a Love Story in the middle of fighting people who can regrow their heads would be selfish waste of time. Thankfully Connolly did not fall into that trap, and I am grateful. Both of his strong kickass characters remain strong of mind and will throughout the entire story.
The magic in this universe is quite intricate and complicated. Little by little it is revealed how evil works, somewhat where it comes from, and how Ray and Annalise must fight to get rid of it, even if there are casualties of war along the way. Ray is not so hardened to the horrors of the supernatural world as Annalise, and he fights his instincts to understand what she is saying and to follow her orders, mostly because if he doesn’t, she will be allowed to let him die, or even kill him. And she does so want him dead. Magic is passed through special grimoires, it can be learned, and it can be warded against, and any evil that makes its way through the ages must be dealt with in the deadliest way possible. Annalise appears to have no conscience as she must always consider the greater good, find the bad magic, and destroy it at all costs. Her character is harder to understand, and in fact, Ray does not understand her at first, nor does he understand what she is trying to achieve. But as Ray discovers the world he has been thrust into, so too does the reader begin to see building blocks of Connolly’s universe.
An exciting begin to a series, Child of Fire, is full of strong and strange characters that are not easily forgotten. Nor easily forgotten is some of the horror of this book. The imagery is amazing, but it is also disturbing, and there is no clear winner at the end. This book is not about a knight in shining armor rescuing a princess from a town and fighting ugly trolls along the way with sleeping powder, so no one dies. It is a book about evil, destruction, and death. It is also a book about redemption, fighting evil for the sake of doing what is right, and surviving to do so yet another day. Life is messy, it is full of destruction, and it is about fighting for what you want. There is courage in trying even if there is no guarantee you will succeed (which is where I disagree with the wisdom of Yoda). If you do not attempt that which frightens you to do, then you have already failed.