Poison Sleep: Entertaining urban fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review T.A. Pratt Marla Mason 1. Blood Engines 2. Poison SleepPoison Sleep by T.A. Pratt

Urban fantasy is all the rage these days. While I’m concerned about the eventual over-saturation of the market, it’s definitely a good time to be a fan of the sub-genre, especially when writers like T.A. Pratt are given the chance to shine. Tim Pratt, the winner of the 2007 Hugo Award for the short story “Impossible Dreams,” also left a positive impression on me with his novel Blood Engines and its rewarding blend of wacky characters, comedy, supernatural action, and imagination. Granted, I had a few issues with the writing, but overall I really enjoyed the book and looked forward to the sequel.

Whereas Blood Engines took place in San Francisco, Poison Sleep finds Marla Mason back in her element as the chief sorcerer of Felport — a made-up city in an alternate contemporary world where magic is real, but kept hidden from the eyes of ‘ordinaries’. Of course responsibilities come with any position of power, and Marla’s plate is overflowing. Not only is there the usual in-house bickering that she has to contend with from rival sorcerers, but on top of that a patient has escaped from the Blackwing Institute for the criminally insane. At first Marla isn’t too worried, but after she gets a glimpse of Genevieve Kelly’s awesome reweaving abilities — being sucked into her dreamland, palaces appearing in the real world, creating a living nightmare who wants to usurp Genevieve’s power for his own and conquer the planet — she makes it her top priority. On top of all of this, there’s also a slow assassin out for Marla’s head and two new men in her life (Joshua Kindler, who was hired to handle diplomatic matters, and personal assistant Ted), one of whom is a spy. Needless to say, things are looking pretty bad for Marla.

Thankfully, the greater Marla’s problems are, the more entertaining Poison Sleep becomes, as T.A. Pratt delivers a story crackling with energetic pacing, witty sass, and a smorgasbord of wild magics like Marla’s double-edged cloak (one side heals the wearer, the other turns her into a ruthless killing machine), Cursing, probability-shifting, technomancy, Medusa’s blood which can birth new creatures, chaos magic, sympathetic magic, and a symbiotic green mold that does a pretty good impression of Venom from the Spider-Man comics. There’s also a little romance involving Marla and Joshua, but keeping in line with the rest of Tim’s work, this is not your typical romance as Kindler is a lovetalker: he possesses a supernatural power that makes people fall in love with him. This brings up the interesting question: Is Marla in love with Joshua as an individual, or just his magic?

Regarding the characters, Marla is obviously the focus of the book, just like in Blood Engines, and she again shows how much of a bad-ass she is. The third-person narrative is also split between the renegade slow assassin Zealand who is contracted to kill the chief sorcerer, and Nicolette, a chaos magician serving under the diviner Gregor, one of Marla’s main rivals. If you regularly read urban fantasy, you’ve probably noticed that most series are narrated via the first-person, which offers a certain appealing intimacy. However, the alternating third-person point of view has its benefits too, such as offering greater insights into the motives of other characters, keeping readers in the thick of the action, and perhaps most importantly, surprising the reader. Fortunately, Mr. Pratt likes to keep readers on their toes, so there are some pretty interesting surprises that just wouldn’t be possible with a first-person POV. As far as the supporting players, I’m not sure if this bunch is as eccentric as the ones found in Blood Engines but Genevieve, Reave the king of nightmares, and Joshua Kindler definitely make a strong case. It was also nice to see more of Hamil, Marla’s consiglieri, as well as Felport’s other prominent occupants such as the technomancer Langford, Viscarro, Ernesto, the Chamberlain, Granger, and the Bay Witch. One thing that surprised me was how small a role Rondeau had in Poison Sleep. I know I found him a bit one-dimensional in Blood Engines, but I have to admit that I missed his banter.

Apart from the wildly imaginative story, the fun cast of characters and the improved writing, what I liked most about Poison Sleep is that it is almost completely self-contained. Even though there are references to Blood Engines and the short story “Grander than the Sea” (from The Solaris Book of New Fantasy), those are few and really have no bearing on what happens in the book.

That brings me to the heart of the matter about Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason novels. While the series obviously possesses certain similarities to other urban fantasy books currently out there, it’s the little differences that really separate Blood Engines and Poison Sleep from the competition: the third-person narratives, the novels being self-contained, the strong supporting characters, the plot manipulations, the inventive magical concepts, and so on. Between the two, I personally thought that Poison Sleep was the stronger and more entertaining novel, but they are both terrific reads. If Tim Pratt keeps this up, the Marla Mason series will be one of the first I will recommend to readers who want to discover great urban fantasy.


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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