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Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

There’s an art to writing a serial. In each instalment, you recognise that a percentage of the viewers or readers will not have seen or read what went before so they will need helpful hints and clues. Equally, all your loyal fans remember all too clearly how everyone got into this particular mess and want only to see or read how they get out of it. So there’s a balance to be struck. Newbies have to get up to speed. Hopefully, they will be inspired to go back and catch the earlier episodes — something that’s always good for business — but it’s in everyone’s interests to move the latest narrative along. That’s why most instalments in so many hack serials are formulaic. Once you’ve seen or read one episode, you realise Flash is still on Mongo fighting the Riddler while wondering if Moriarty really did die at Reichenbach Falls. When you understand the formula, it doesn’t matter what order you see or read them in. They all just happen in the moment.

Which brings me to Child of Fire. You have to put yourself as a fly on the wall of the publisher’s office to understand this. “Just think,” says the accountant, “of the size of the fan base you could create. There’s a fantastic market for spin-offs, sequels when one story arc has finished, and prequels. And those prequels can go back as far as you want into childhood. Hey, you could even write some for the YA market. Get them hooked on your heroes young and they’ll follow in lockstep into the adult serial. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs to riches. That means never starting at a beginning because, by our definition (on our contract terms to be negotiated) there’s no such thing as a beginning, just a point of origin tetralogy.” So poor unpublished Harry Connolly looks at the dollar signs written into the contract for his first novel, acts on what the publisher says, changes the title and sells his second novel.

Yes, friends, this is truly bizarre. This is the second outing for this pair of ghostbusters and, dotted through the text are the hints and clues normally reserved for newbies. Except, there’s no first novel to go back and read how they met. We have to wait for the prequel to get the gory details of how many they killed and how our hero ended up in police custody.

Personally, I prefer my story arcs to have a better defined beginning.

That said, this is a good read. The author has a lean style and, with commendable efficiency, sucks us in at the beginning (such as it is) and spits us out at the end (not counting the teaser pages of the already written sequel). This presents the threat of predators from other dimensions within a framework of magic where spells are cast to confer a significant range of different skills and abilities. Not surprisingly, the defenders of the Earth guard spell books out of fear. If too many ordinary folk could cast spells, this would be chaotic. So, courtesy of events in the prequel, our hero is an ordinary Joe who got caught up as a “defense contractor” — think of him as an employee of Blackwater with instructions to go out and make a lot of noise, shooting and, if unavoidable, killing as many as possible (regardless whether they are alive or dead). During this bloodthirsty first outing, he actually casts a spell of his own that works as a “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly. It’s a kind of all-purpose, but close-quarters, knife that passes through anything and cuts some things on the way. This is complicated because it will cut the clothing of enemies but not his own clothes when it leaves and returns to his pocket. Our hero is the “support” for a fully-fledged sorceress who, when push comes to shove, relentlessly tips the enemy off the cliff. She is, well, more or less, invulnerable. Except, of course, this particular predator’s attack inadvertently strikes her Achilles heel, leaving our hero to do the lifting (more heavy because of his general lack of magical skills and the need for him to survive to grace the pages of the next instalment — and the prequel).

You have to be prepared to suspend disbelief on an epic scale for this book to work. No matter how many people hit him, shoot at him or try to incinerate him, our hero manages to walk away relatively unscathed. It’s a kind of magic I wish I’d had when I was younger. But, switch off the brain and this is enjoyable mayhem with a slightly different twist on Ridley Scott’s (i.e. Van Vogt’s) Alien reproductive cycle, a werewolf or two, and assorted spellcasting.

Put another way, this is a talented writer who, to earn a living, has written a potboiler intended to inspire a lucrative serial. I wish him luck. It’s just a shame he could not have used his obvious talent to construct something slightly more “satisfying”. Oh dear, a view that sounds more elitist than usual. This probably means I think this book a guilty pleasure. I tend to prefer books that make me think rather than books to occupy a few hours with reasonable pleasure. Either way, this is so much more than the mindless incoherence of the standard potboiler. It is enjoyable.

For those of you who enjoy following up on a review, you can see comments here which is a mirror site from here.

Here are the reviews of the other two volumes in the series: Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies.

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