Michael Pryor’s The Extinction Gambit, book one of the EXTRAORDINAIRES series, is not the best book I’ve read this year. But it does have the best pithy plot summary uttered by a character:
“So the Olympic Games are being jeopardized by a band of evil sorcerers who want my brain,” Kingsley said, “while I try to find my foster father who may have been abducted by creatures from the dawn of time.”
That’s Kingsley Ward, young stage magician-to-be, talking at lunch with Evadne Stephens — the young albino genius inventor/master juggler/elite weaponsmaker who has already rescued him once from said sorcerers and creatures — and famed writer Rudyard Kipling, who, based on his experience in India writing The Jungle Book, has taken an abiding interest in Kingsley.
As one can see, there’s a lot going on in The Extinction Gambit, and that’s before we get to the 1908 London Summer Olympics, the time machine, hybrid rat-robots, secret lairs, the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the potential extinction of all homo sapiens. Half of which takes place in the mundane world and the other half in the Demimonde, which “exists side by side with the mundane world, but is mostly invisible to it. Places ordinary people don’t go… or couldn’t find even if they wanted to go.”
To be honest, I thought there was a bit too much going on here, what with:
- the three immortal sorcerers who transmigrate their consciousness into human vessels and are planning to dominate the world
- the last extant group of Neanderthals plotting the extinction of the human race
- Time travel (I’ll confess I’m rarely a fan of time travel used as a plot device)
- Kingley’s own personal issues involving a mysterious past and his dual nature
- a few and sundry other plot points
I would have preferred the plot pared down just a bit, maybe save some of this for future novels in this proposed series entitled THE EXTINCTION GAMBIT. But then again, it’s such a breezy romp that though it felt a bit cluttered and frenetic in places, I couldn’t hold it against the novel for too long.
The Extraordinaires shares a bit with Pryor’s earlier series, THE RULES OF LAW. We have a mostly suave though rattled at times young male protagonist (Kingley) teamed with a dashingly non-stereotypical and often more competent and smarter young female (Evadne), with the two adorably bantering their way through crisis after crisis as they battle evil. Sample banter:
He was tugged backward . . . and couldn’t stop himself falling into Evadne’s arms.
She kicked the door closed from the other side . . . and held him at arm’s length.
Evadne released her grip.
Like that earlier series, this is historical fantasy, in this case set in 1908 Edwardian England, with a side trip to a few centuries earlier. I would have liked a stronger sense of the time and place; outside of a few set moments, I didn’t feel fully ensconced in a historical period, either the “contemporary” one of 1908 or the earlier 1666 time period. Part of that was simply because much of the action took place in settings really removed from the mundane world — two isolated lairs set beneath historical London rather than in it, but still, a greater sense of immersion would have strengthened the novel I think.
Pryor’s characters, and his prose, have a sort of winning insouciance about them, and if things do come a bit too easily to our protagonists, the path to victory somewhat greased by implausibly unguarded devices and areas and fortuitously timed coincident events, as with muttering about the cluttered plot or somewhat thin historical setting, one feels just a little churlish and ill-bred in comparison to the characters for complaining. They’re both just so civilized (even with a wolfish/vengeful side), so nice, so spunky. And Evadne in particular so engagingly a mixture of whimsy and seriousness.
In the end, their winsome nature, Pryor’s fluid prose, the breezy plot and banter, and the potential of the Demimonde all combine to mostly outweigh the flaws, making for an enjoyable and quick read that resolves this story arc but clearly leaves room for further adventures. It’s a good-natured, good-hearted old-fashioned kind of dashing romp for YA and a quick if a bit flawed read for older readers, who will smile but wish for a bit more bite and danger.