Ray Lilly works for Annalise Powliss, a sort of enforcer among sorcerers, and he’s terrified of her. She wants to kill him, but she’s been forbidden to, and so is forced to settle for using him as a chauffeur and hired hand in all things magical and mundane.
On their first outing, they work together to help a family whose child has just spontaneously combusted before their eyes, ultimately dissolving into a mass of fat, wriggling, silver-gray worms. But the family doesn’t want their help; they’ve forgotten their son ever existed, even while still within view of the black scorch mark left behind when he caught fire.
And all this happens within the first ten pages of Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, the first in a series of urban fantasies known collectively as the TWENTY PALACES series. There are three novels published to date, plus a prequel available only as an ebook, with no further books planned, unfortunately; according to Connolly’s blog, they just didn’t sell as well as hoped, despite considerable support by the publisher.
I liked Child of Fire so much that I immediately got hold of all the other novels in the series — and I’m hoping that the ebook of the prequel sells well enough to make it worth Connolly’s time to keep going. These are urban fantasies of a different flavor, with a male protagonist (as opposed to the usual leather-clad young female) who has been around the block a few times. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett seem to be Connolly’s influences, rather than Charles de Lint and Laurell Hamilton, which is all to the good. This dark and violent version of a magical world is fascinating, assuming you can tolerate the nearly unbearable premise of children destroyed by fire for a dark purpose.
Connolly keeps plenty of things mysterious in this novel: just what is the Twenty Palace Society anyway, and why does Annalise hate Ray so much, and why is he so loyal to her regardless? But the mystery itself, which involves a toy factory producing old-fashioned toys that ought not to appeal to children but inexplicably are as attractive as the latest videogame, is fascinating. Ray and Annalise are in danger almost from the first page, particularly after Annalise suffers an injury that severely affects her ability to continue her investigation — even her survival. (And the treatment she requires for the injury — the consumption of vast quantities of raw beef — is beautifully creepy.) Her magic has a system, Ray’s has a different system, and the devils of the piece have their own source of power that seems to come straight out of latter-day Lovecraft.
Child of Fire moves fast and never lets up. Anyone who likes a heavy dose of mystery mixed in with his or her fantasy is likely to find this novel engrossing and enjoyable.