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Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly

November 24, 2011 2 comments

In the distant past when idioms were being formed out of the chaotic maelstrom of inchoate language, we lifted ourselves out of the slough of despond with thoughts like, “. . .with friends like this around me, why does it feel like a circle of enemies?” So here we go with the third (or fourth) outing by Harry Connolly in the Twenty Palaces series for Ray Lilly. As you will gather from the intro, it’s titled Circle of Enemies and it represents both good news and further fuel for my pet peeve.

So Ray, our wooden man, is provoked into action and, for once, initiates contact with the secret society, asking for help from his “boss”, Annalise Powliss. Having sent out the SOS, he jumps in his car and drives from Seatle to LA, a journey that takes him back to his old stamping ground and to the people who were variously friends and/or accomplices. Once he arrives, the action comes thick and fast as he navigates the narrow path between past friendships and current enmities. In part the moral conundrum for him to resolve is whether he should kill his erstwhile friends if he cannot save them (from themselves as much as from the predators). However, there are so many people who wander in and out of view during this novel that there’s little time to get to know any of them and no incentive to invest any empathy in caring what happens to them. There’s a lot of action, as I said, but although we are advancing steadily towards the end, this book feels less satisfying than the other two.

Harry Connolly giving his PC the finger

I suppose we see Ray developing his use of the ghost knife but, even though it’s applied in a slightly different context and against different predators, it getting to be repetitive. Ray can slash with it and, now with the power of his mind, make it whoosh around and so fly through “things” at a distance which is convenient. But the fighting is always set up as a kind of Jim Bowie encounter with our hero wielding a fixed-blade knife against various armed (or tentacled) enemies. The development comes in two different ways. He’s given a major new spell. This is like the existing tattoos in being essentially passive although, over time, it’s going to give him more resistance to injury and expend his life expectancy. Secondly, he’s making progress into the Twenty Palaces Society. This is not before time and, even now, it’s just a promise of a more detailed understanding in books to come. But Harry Connolly has at least realised the series will die unless he gives Ray Lilly better skills and some insight into exactly what the Society is and what it’s really fighting for. I think we’re rather past the altruism in defence of the planet stage. Everyone has their own agenda and keeping the world safe is certainly on their list of things to do, but. . .

Now we come to my continuing frustration with this series. As I have been at pains to point out in previous reviews, this is actually the fourth book but, so far only three have been published. In this episode, we are back in the place where it all started and meet some of the people who were involved in Ray’s initial trip into Empty Spaces, his creation of the knife spell and his first meeting with Annalise. Yet we are expected to swallow the usual backstory references without being given the basic courtesy of reading the first book in which it all happened. My reason for being particularly depressed is that, to my knowledge, two offers have been made to publish the first book, but these were refused. Frankly, I cannot imagine why this author should have such a reluctance to get the first book out of his bottom drawer and into the world as a published book.

The result of all this is a book with a lot of pace and action, but little involvement. There’s real hope for the metanarrative’s development if Harry Connolly carries through with his promise to allow us inside the Twenty Palaces Society and Ray learns about how to create and use more spells. Simply repeating the same fighting technique is already boring. We positively need something new. So, if you have not already done so, read the first two published books in this series. They are genuinely worth the effort. If you do choose to read Circle of Enemies, see it as marking time until the author moves the plot along into better pastures to explore. Hopefully, everything will get back on track in the fourth (or fifth) book as and when it appears in 2012. I will certainly read it, but the luster has started to come off the brand image.

Here are the reviews of the first two in the series: Child of Fire and Game of Cages.

Game of Cages by Harry Connolly

November 26, 2010 1 comment

Game of Cages is a sequel to Child of Fire, and so Book 2 (or 3 depending on how you are counting) of the Twenty Palaces series by Harry Connolly. In many ways, I think Game of Cages rather better than Child of Fire.

For these purposes, I need to repeat thoughts about the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action — there’s more detail on this in the discussion of Bloodline. Essentially, the classical approach is to have all relevant action take place in one continuous period of time and in the same place. For a theatrical production, this gives you a slice of “real life” rather than having to chop and change from one scene to the next.

Books, of course, are never limited by the need to reset a scene on the stage. Cinema is also going through a revolution with the increasingly common use of CGI. Anything can be projected on to a blue screen and so signal a change of scenery. But thinking abut the way thrillers in most media are put together, they aim for their effect by building to a climax against the clock, e.g. because the heroes only have fourteen hours to save the Earth and so no time for sex or, if you prefer it shorter before you get to the celebratory sex, four hours to stop the bomb going off with a Cardinal killed every hour as an appetiser — no pressure there, then.

So back to Game of Cages. Once Ray Lilly, our hero, and the investigator arrive in Washaway (not the beach) in the North Cascades, all the action apart from the epilogue is located in or around in the town — almost as though the town itself becomes a cage. Similarly, allowing for odd hours of snatched sleep, the action is continuous. As they come to the location of the auction where the predator is to be sold, the dynamic duo find the now-broken cage being used to transport the interdimensional beast and, from then on, it’s a dash to save as many townspeople as possible and kill the predator (BTW there’s a larger cage in the outhouse where it had been kept for years). This focus on a single location creates a sense of claustrophobia and allows more suspense to build as we count down to the predator getting all the townsfolk together in one place for a snack.

Harry Connolly and Jim Freivogel playing our hero, Ray Lilly. Copyright © 2010 Wyrd, LLC

Pairing our hero with a human who has no apparent magical skills, resets the balance of the book. In Child of Fire, our hero is the bullied Wooden Man with Annalise the boss. Now it’s for our hero to make the running without a powerful magician to back him up. This is both a strength and a weakness. In any confrontations with others having magical skills or in fighting the predator itself, it all comes down to the one guy. We watch him learning fast and adapting. Yet the weakness becomes more apparent as first the appropriately named Pratt arrives on the scene (perhaps the word doesn’t have the same pejorative impact in American English) followed later by Annalise. This should re-establish the pecking order, leaving it to the pros from Dover to solve the case. Except, in the end, it all comes down to our hero. Perhaps this is as it should be since he is the hero. But when he succeeds, it says something interesting about who really does hold the balance of power.

This is where the missing first book becomes really frustrating. There must be something about the way in which the hero cast the spell forming the ghost knife that gives him a literal and metaphorical edge. It cannot have been a routine spell that an amateur would cast. Whatever was done must have imbued the spell and the one who wields it with above average power, perhaps amplified because he has physically been into the Empty Spaces from or through which the predators come. This is the only explanation that makes any sense and, presumably, it means he has the power to become a magician in his own right as the series continues. If this is not the intended direction, then the series may well come off the rails as our human, armed only with a single knife and protected by his tattoos, takes on and beats increasingly powerful opponents. Somehow, I don’t see this character as a Batman in the making.

There’s also a potential problem in the pipeline as Government must be increasingly interested in the man and his current backers, the Twenty Palaces Society. Obviously, it’s very useful to Government to have this type of organisation as a shield (assuming the President and his merry men accept the reality of magic and the threat from predators). But when there’s so much power available, the Twenty Palaces Society could also be seen as a threat to established human power structures. In future books, the point of view must widen to include the broader political situation. The death count in Washout was significant. Many are going to argue that the defensive play was as destructive as the predator’s eating. If such incidents are going to become more common, perhaps formal rules of engagement will be required (even though they will probably be ignored when the fighting begins).

So this is good page-turning action that manages to keep the tension going until the last gasp. It will be interesting to see how well Harry Connolly keeps the series going — episode 3 (or 4) being titled Circle of Enemies. I’m optimistic!

For more pictures from the shoot preparing the promotional book trailer for Circle of Enemies, go to the Wyrd site.

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