Book Burners is an urban fantasy series about a five-person team that works to recover dangerous magical artifacts and lock them away beneath the Vatican. The brainchild of Max Gladstone, author of the fabulous Craft series, it is one of the main titles for Serial Box, an online publisher/distributor that “brings everything that’s awesome about TV (easily digestible episodes, team written, new content every week) to what was already cool about books,” selling the weekly installments for a small price. Like a tv show, there’s a overarching plot that is moved incrementally along as the cast fights weekly battles. Think the tv show Supernatural, or as other reviewers note, Warehouse 13. Let the Serial Box advert serve as warning: Book Burners shares some of the weaknesses of the television format without capturing the strengths.
Five main characters make up
The Avengers the team: Detective Sally, police officer; Liam, computer dude; Grace, kick-ass fighter; Asanti, researcher; and Father Menchú, priest and leader. The first story uses Sal as as stand in for the naive reader, building the world and introducing the team and its mission. Sal’s a NYPD police officer whose younger brother shows up at her apartment, looking for a place to crash. The team is following him, and when weird things happen, Sal ends up working with them to help her brother.
The collected edition has all 16 episodes of the first season in one tome, and definitely feels too similar about halfway through. Undoubtedly, reading will work better following the serial pacing, not binging. Each episode is about 50 pages. The four authors are able to achieve a relatively uniform tone, although I felt like Gladstone’s style tended to stand out slightly. Most follow the standard tv format of short victim viewpoint followed by team-focused problem solving and action mode. Lafferty’s sections had welcome flourishes of humor. The pacing is well done, with each installment having a plot that starts and finishes, usually without resorting to cliffhangers.
However, the uniform tone is at the expense of in-depth world and personality-building. One way the authors deal with the challenge is to have a couple of episodes focus on backstories. Sal, the police officer and Grace, the fighting expert from China (go ahead; I sighed too) both get some history, but most episodes are the ‘monster of the week’ variety. Eventually, arch-villains are discovered who will provide background opposition through multiple stories.
Honestly, as a read it was only mildly entertaining. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that felt more like a television script, bare on details that would likely be fleshed out in a visual medium. Writing often felt choppy, making me nostalgic for the work of writers more comfortable with short-story format. Characters felt largely stereotypical, with only the rare transcendent moment. There isn’t too much that gets into the philosophical underpinnings of how team members reconcile the dichotomy of having magical support/knowledge/access/skills at the same time they are confiscating magical artifacts.
Overall, not a bad book, and I wouldn’t rule out reading more in the world. It’s just wasn’t as fun as I was expecting (especially with the tv-like focus) and generally feels forgettable.
The installments, broken out:
- Badge, Book, and Candle (Gladstone): Sal meets the team
- Anywhere but Here (Slattery): an Italian apartment and a pair of missing girls
- Fair Weather (Dunlap): an explosion at a book shop leads to a yacht
- A Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Lafferty): Asanti heads to Scotland for her mentor’s funeral, Sal is back-up
- The Market Arcanum (Dunlap): Sal and Menchu attend the annual flea market for practitioners
- Big Sky (Slattery): tornadoes are out of control in an Oklahoma town
- Now and Then (Gladstone): Sal tracks down Grace and learns her story
- Under My Skin (Lafferty): the team heads to Vegas to solve a problem with a tattoo artist reality show
- Ancient Wonders (Dunlap): the team goes to Delphi to listen to the Oracle
- Shore Leave (Lafferty): Grace and Sal enjoy Grace’s day off while the team tries to manage a timepiece
- Codex Umbra (Gladstone): recovering a magical book from a guarded fortress
- Puppets (Slattery): dealing with demons
- Keeping Friends Close (Lafferty): demons and books
- An Excellent Day for an Exorcism (Slattery)
- Things Lost (Dunlap)
- Seige (Gladstone)