Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fated by Benedict Jacka (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read the first chapter HERE
Order the book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Benedict Jacka first thought of becoming a writer when at the age of eighteen he started writing a story in his school library. Since then he's graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, lived in China, and worked in various different occupations such as civil servant, bouncer and teacher before returning to London to study law. He’s also taken part in competitive ballroom dancing and martial arts. He currently lives in London.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Alex Verus is a diviner, able to see the future. This is impressive to most people but less so to other mages, who can do things like throw fire, disintegrate things, and fly. Right now Alex has a problem – a site’s been discovered containing an ancient and powerful relic, and lots of people are looking for a diviner to open it, including a trio of dark mages, a faction of the Council with an agenda of their own, and a shadowy figure out of Alex’s past, all of whom are looking to recruit, press-gang, or kill Alex, not necessarily in that order.

As if that’s not enough, Alex has to take care of his would-be apprentice, who has some connection to the relic which is making her a target as well . . . and who also just happens to carry a curse that’ll kill anyone who gets too close, assuming the mages hunting her don’t do it first. His allies are an air elemental with the memory of a goldfish and a creature living under Hampstead Heath that would make most people run screaming.

Sometimes seeing the future isn’t as fun as it sounds...

FORMAT/INFO: Fated is 295 pages long, divided over fifteen chapters. Narration is in the first-person solely via Alex Verus. Fated is the first book in the Alex Verus series.

February 28, 2012 marked the North American paperback and e-book publication of Fated via ACE books. The UK version was released in both paperback and e-book format on March 1, 2012 via Orbit.

ANALYSIS: Benedict Jacka’s debut has received quite some hype before its release and a blurb from Jim Butcher (coming from JB, this was something special as he currently blurbs biennially). All things considered this results in tremendous expectation to arise for a debut book. Anne Sowards also had mentioned Fated as one of the books to look out for in 2012 in her FBC interview. All things considered, I was very curious to see how the book would turn out to be.

Fated begins us with Alex Verus who is sitting in his magic charms shop called “Arcana Emporium” and divining the near future as that is his power. He receives a phone call from Luna who requests his help and after a quick divination, he decides to meet her. On his way however an old acquaintance comes to meet him to offer him a job of sorts wherein his divining powers are a requirement. The job offer pisses Alex off and he soon continues on his way to meet Luna. That’s when things start getting hairier as readers are given a clue about Luna’s unique problem and the thing she’s carrying. The actual plot begins and the readers are immersed into the world of Alex Verus wherein fate might not play that strong a role as it usually does.

The good part about this debut is that the story does its best to entrance the reader, beginning from its strong prose to the narrator’s distinct voice. The author unveils the story nicely and then doles out the world details very conveniently. The story is a straight forward one which though like most urban fantasies has a central mystery plot which slowly unfolds over the course of the book. The mystery aspect is a decent one and deals with a recovery of a certain object which requires the aid of divination magic. The overall prose is something which truly is the silver lining aspect of this story, here’s an example:
In my little corner of the city, things aren’t so bad. So if there’s something you need help with, drop by the Arcana Emporium. Its easy enough to find of you try. You probably won’t take it seriously at first, but that’s okay. Seeing is believing, after all!”

The author very admirably showcases the world of the protagonist and his reticence to return to the world of magic of which he was a part of. The protagonist’s thoughts and views are nicely laid about for the reader to empathize with and with the first person narrative, the reader is thoroughly immersed in the character’s mind. The author in his lackadaisical way does conveys the protagonist’s weariness, the main character does have a sordid past which is only hinted at and has lead to certain situation in his present life. One of the many mysteries of this series is that the main character’s name is not his true one and that certainly adds an extra veneer of mystery to this tale. The action sequences are also decently paced through out the story and the climax of the story has quite a thriller feel to it and kudos to the author for delivering such a strong, action-packed finale.

Of the many things that were good about this book, there were a few which worked against it. On reading it, I'm a bit perplexed. On one hand this is a good debut with definite series potential however comparisons to Dresden files and expectations might sour the read for many a fan. I found quite a few similarities with the Dresden files namely:
(1) A solo protagonist who has a troubled and secretive past
(2) The presence of a magical organization from which the protagonist is estranged
(3) The protagonist’s dogged persistence which happens to save the day
(4) The protagonist’s magical ability which isn’t on par with the bad guy’s power but yet he never gives up
(5) The protagonist has his side character cast which goes on to help in many a way

These similarities while being common with many a book, are quite evident in this story, while in the Dresden files the humor quotient is significantly present. That is not the case with this book as the humor level is quite shallow. I felt that while I was reading a good story, it really didn’t do much to differentiate itself as a spectacular one. The story and settings are developed just to an appropriate level however it isn’t done to a level which will make it stand out. Thus overall the debut does a good job but it will have to do a lot more to separate itself from the UF gold standard series that is the Dresden Files. I'll definitely be picking up the next two books in the series Taken and Cursed to see where the author takes the story & protagonist.

CONCLUSION: Benedict Jacka’s debut is a good one and it remains to be seen how the series will progress. Most veteran urban fantasy readers will not find anything new over here and the author will have to do a lot more to differentiate himself and his work amidst the crowded sub-genre. Fated is a debut which will have its fans and detractors alike and now its up to the author to increase the former numbers by curbing the deficiencies in his debut.

"The Thief" by Fuminori Nakamura (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order The Thief HERE

INTRODUCTION: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, is a modern crime/thriller novel with philosophical overtones which attracted my attention on two counts. It is written by a Japanese author (see HERE and HERE for two of my recent reviews of Japanese novels and of course 2011's top book of mine was 1Q84) and it is published by Soho Press which just put out the wonderful Andromeda Lax-Romano novel The Detour.

Even so, I hesitated before asking for a review copy as a crime novel is generally not much of interest to me (the genre is way too limited and I read tons in it years ago so essentially I consider it "done" for me unless a crime novel has another dimension like being very good sff or historical fiction first), but ultimately I saw some mentions/reviews that convinced me to give it a try and I am really happy I did so as The Thief delivered.

Note that the blurb below is not really accurate in some ways, though it indeed alludes to events in the novel.

"The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections.... But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: When talking about The Thief there are three aspects I want to touch. The prose (and translation) which are just superb, the narrator's story, both present and flashback past, which is extremely compelling and the crime novel aspects which are both important - as in determining the trajectory of the book - and tangential - as in The Thief is not really about them - so the book is likely to appeal more to readers of literary fiction than to crime genre aficionados.

"When I was a kid, I often messed this up. In crowded shops, in other people’s houses, things I’d pick up furtively would slip from my fingers. Strangers’ possessions were like foreign objects that didn’t fit comfortably in my hands. They would tremble faintly, asserting their independence, and before I knew it they’d come alive and fall to the ground. The point of contact, which was intrinsically morally wrong, seemed to be rejecting me. And in the distance there was always the tower. Just a silhouette floating in the mist like some ancient daydream. But I don’t make mistakes like that these days. And naturally I don’t see the tower either."

The first paragraph of the novel shown above showcases the strengths of the novel as style and voice and it instantly hooked me on the book. While there is one short allusion to his "real" name, the narrator lives in a lonely world with few human contacts, though he weaves adroitly in and out Tokyo crowds and blends in milieus that are well off but also in those less so.

Trying to use his natural dexterity and make a living as a pickpocket targeting mostly "the rich" and "the unlikable" and "advance" the state of the art in stealing from others on the street, in stores or in the subway, our hero - who is well versed in the history of his "profession" - knows that being anonymous and having no ties is the ultimate key to surviving.

“There was also this eccentric who’d put a card with his own name on it in the wallet he’d lifted and then put it back. A famous American pickpocket called Dawson. And an amazing man, Angelillo, who’s estimated to have stolen a hundred thousand wallets..."

However he has still been strongly attracted by a few people, most notably the flamboyant thief/swindler Ishikawa, while the ghost of his former married girlfriend, the self-destructive Saeko, still haunts him, years after they parted. Combined with some powerful childhood's memories that still impinge on him today, the thief finds himself inexorably attracted to a somewhat pathetic mother and son couple who try - ineptly and sure to be caught without his intervention - to steal food from a supermarket and that may of course turn out to be his downfall by tying him to a place and people...

In structure, The Thief moves between the present that actually happens a good while after the events alluded in the blurb above, and the past, both personal as noted above and the hero's unwitting association to a sinister but powerful personage and the blurb robbery - this confused me a little and once I understood the chronology of the novel, I went back and reread the opening chapters which actually take on a little different complexion once you find out this or that later.

The Thief is a very fast moving novel and it actually accelerates the deeper you go into its page count, so at some point it becomes literally very hard to put down as you are so caught in the hero's story that you *must* find out what happens next. At least this happened to me and I had to finish the book despite being very late; in many ways this is the clearest proof of how well the novel works.

The downside to the above is that the story while hinting at deeper stuff - for example the tower in the paragraph quoted earlier - and having philosophical overtones on the nature of fate and free will, never really explores them much and of course the crime aspects are relatively thin. This last did not bother me in the least and actually I would even consider it a plus for the reasons noted in the introduction, but it is also worth noting so you know "what you get".

“The nobleman looked at the youth and thought that he would try to prescribe his entire future. The story of his life, his joys, his sorrows, even his death, he would decide it all. Like Abraham and Moses, who were always under God’s control."

With a superb and pitch-perfect ending, The Thief (highly recommended novel of 2012) has been an unexpected success for me and I intend to keep an eye for anything translated from the author's work as well as on the output of Soho Press.