Making your way in the world today takes everything you got… Making my way through the UF field takes everything I got…
Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton have a lot to answer for, specifically, for achieving a level of commercial success that has spawned a host of imitators. Child of Fire is one of the later entries into the urban fantasy field, first in a short-lived series of three books.
Dresden is the obvious comparison here, but not for the reasons you might think. On the surface, not too much is similar between main characters. Harry Dresden, wizard for hire; Ray Lilly, ex-convict. Harry, practicing wizard; Ray, strictly normal, no magic but a stolen glyph made into a knife. Harry, connected to a community; Ray, isolated in service to Annalise. But the basic characterization reminds me of early Dresden in the eye-rolling chivalry, the emotional over-emphasis on “innocents,” particularly children, the mental/verbal reluctance to fight that never seems to translate into preventing violence. Ever notice how often they always say “I was pushed into it”? The token guilt at causing violence and death? (“They made me!”) It’s a clear emotional resonance.
On the positive side, there was a creepy Stepford town, an under-powered hero, an intimidating woman (made oh-so-vulnerable), a cool knife and interesting villains. Well, not the cats’ paws; the real powers behind them were fascinating. Connolly does a decent job of developing a tone of dread in a remote Washington town and it’s strange inhabitants, and the background magic seems interesting.
Plotting moves along in fits and starts. It felt a little uneven–although Ray and Annalise are heading into town to investigate and remove the source of the illicit magic, the pair barrel into situations without forethought, letting it sort itself out. Ray eventually comes up with an insufficient cover story that only serves to heighten townies’ suspicions. The poorly conceived strategy doesn’t really work for either characters’ motivation, Ray’s theory of protecting innocents or Annalise’s intention to destroy evil, but whatever, I guess. I’ve been told not to be so picky. Further picky notes include a supposed ‘secret society’ that seems to think nothing of mass murder and a ‘burn it all down’ mentality. No reader explanations needed! The narrator himself admits he “doesn’t know how it all happened.” Convenient! And, as long as I’m being picky…
Characterization also felt uninspired. Our hero was poor and abused! The cops are jerks and abuse power! A sinning preacher! A relentless newspaperman! A scary madam with lots of power disproportionate to real life! A guy that does evil with the intention of doing good! Henchman that may or may not be able to use guns! Even important characters are puzzling. There’s a lady that stalks the narrator–but Ray might be a little turned on. He’s been in prison, after all! Annalise orders him to sleep with her. He doesn’t want to now that he’s ordered to! But the lady initiates, so he does! But then the lady says, not again–it was too intense! Wow! So he’s left with the residue of hot, intensive sex and no future entanglements! Honestly, I’m not sure what purpose it played in the narrative. Her character was just whatever the author wanted. But it did maybe make his boss just a little jealous!
But I still can’t stop reading UF! Or using exclamation points! I read even when this felt like a first book! Trope-heavy with prosaic peripheral characters and writing that is focused on action scenes, which seems to be where Connolly’s vision is the clearest. After finishing, I discovered Connolly intentionally refrained from filling out a number of details regarding the Twenty Palaces Society and general world building, but unfortunately, I’m not sure he manages to intrigue as much as convince us that the side of the angels is a bunch of jerks that don’t deserve our attention.
Recommendations are always hard for me, given that I want to play match-maker and fit the right read to the right person. I certainly won’t add it to my shelves, but if you liked early Dresden and don’t mind an uneven, action-focused writing style, you might enjoy it.
Two and a half to three standard stars.