Saturday, February 28, 2015

On fire

Greg Van Eekhout
Tor Books 2015

Reviewed by carol
Recommended for fans of capers, Locke, UF
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

Water mages. Bounty hunters. Kraken magic. Pirates. Fans of fast paced, fantastical-element thrillers should love Pacific Fire. Clever world-building, a wry dose of humor, and occasional winks at genre conventions all made for an entertaining read.

While connected to events in California Bones, Pacific Fire takes place ten years after the evens in Bones. Sam, magical child of the former ruler of the L.A. Basin, and Daniel, an osteomancer, have been on the run ever since, never in one place for more than a few weeks. It’s a lonely existence, and Sam is desperate for a friend. Or girlfriend. The chief of the L.A. Department of Water and Power tracks them both down to their Salton Sea hideout with a warning. Daniel’s former guardian Otis has a new plan to dominate the magical factions fighting over Los Angeles, and wants Sam to act as the power source. Daniel determines to bring the fight to Otis, but events sideline him, leaving Sam in charge. Sam heads to a safehouse run by some Emmas, clones of one of the more brilliant L.A. osteomancers. From there it is a race to disable Otis’ plans.

Characters were interesting. At least, I felt they were interesting, but I may have been misled by my involvement with the prior book. Told from a third person limited point of view, the book blurb definitely misleads when it quotes Sam’s thoughts in first person. I was actually glad for the change in voice, but be forewarned.  The Emmas were particularly stand-out characters, perhaps because Van Eekhout had to take pains to distinguish them. I might have exclaimed, “go, girl” when Em said:
I didn’t partner up with you because I have a crush on you. I didn’t partner up with you because I was swayed by your charismatic leadership qualities. I’m not interested in being your sidekick while you see redemption, or closure, or trot ahead on a quest to fulfill your destiny. Not everything is about you, Sam.

It’s a ‘huzzah’ moment of self-awareness, guaranteed to hit most female readers in the feels. I’m a person that’s reasonably willing to follow the yellow brick road of a well-made story, so it was only at the finish that I realized she was the sidekick, even if she had her own motivations for going.  Likewise, on reflection, I realized Sam’s voice didn’t make any sense. One of the quotes I highlighted–because I loved it–actually shouldn’t have been thought, because Sam didn’t attend school in any normal sense of the word. I realized VanEekout was taking some shortcuts with Sam’s voice, and that it sounded far more contemporary–and inappropriate–for the child of a thief, and someone who has been on the run for ten years:
There was something about Em that made him think of high school hallways and solving mysteries. Also, he liked her nose.

Daniel hasn’t evolved too far from California Bones, except for an increase in paranoia. He still allows guilt to eat at him, but his friendships keep him from getting too far off track. The dialogue between him and his best friend Moth is always entertaining:

Daniel took another long sip. ‘You know that thing about true friends, how they’re the ones who can tell you anything?’
‘Yeah,’ said Moth, a little puffed up.
‘I hate that thing.'”

The emotional center of the book wobbled midway through and then lost control entirely at the finish. Like The Rook, the story needs to walk the knife’s edge of risk and humor; it needs to take itself seriously enough that the reader worries about the outcome, but not so seriously that we can enjoy a self-aware wink on the way. When the stakes get truly high, with a series of devastating outcomes, the story loses its balance. Not terribly, and potentially saveable in the the third book. I will also add a general note of disapproval for the only technically resolved ending. 

Fans of The Rook (review) and Lies of Locke Lamora will likely enjoy this series by VanEekhout. I’m still looking forward to the third book, but I think I’ll wait on adding this to the library. Many thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the review copy.