At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the four books of the "Twenty Palaces" series by Harry Connolly. I finished the third one today.
Set in the modern day, the world of the Twenty Palaces is a world where magic is real. It's cast by ritual and involves putting spells on something (like a ribbon, a piece of paper, or a sword) or on someone (in the form of a tattoo).
Magic comes from three spell books that have been lost. The Twenty Palaces Society is a group that wants to keep magic out of the hands of others and is willing to kill anyone necessary to accomplish their goal. But it's not just enough to keep magic out of unsafe hands. There's also the predators.
In the Twenty Palaces world, there's things out there in the empty spaces outside of what we know to be reality. Those things are hungry and really want to be summoned here where they can feed. And they really, really don't like being imprisoned.
It turns out that most renegade magic users tend to try to summon predators for the powers they may grant. And they lose control. And then the predators feed. Predators are so dangerous that they can actually scour all life from the Earth, so when the Twenty Palaces Society learns someone's mucking about with predators, they destroy everything necessary to ensure that predator is dead.
Whew! So that's the setting. Enter Ray Lilly, Connolly's protagonist.
Ray used to be a car thief and petty criminal. He has a dislike of firearms (a childhood accident crippled his best friend) and has managed to get out a recent bought of legal troubles. He's now working for Annalise, a peer of the Twenty Palaces Society (and scary badass) as her "wooden man". He doesn't have to take this thankless job... he could just let her kill him.
Fun times. So Ray's job is to do what Annalise tells him, and she's not inclined to tell him much. He's a "wooden man". He's not expected to last long enough to matter. Lucky for Ray, he's got a couple of spells of his own to help him out, one of which he managed to cast himself.
And so we enter "Child of Fire". With Annalise, Ray goes to a sleepy Oregon town to investigate some magic. It doesn't take long for a tattooed ex-convict and his scary, tattooed, homicidal boss to wind up in trouble with what's going on and before long, Ray's having to step up against a powerful predator.
"Game of Cages" takes place a short time after "Child of Fire". Ray's living a normal life and trying to do what ex-cons do when they go straight. But a part of him misses the insanity and the rush of life in the Twenty Palaces Society. When a Twenty Palaces investigator gets him to accompany her on a job, he jumps at it. And winds up in a deadly struggle between magicians as they vie to claim a captive predator. It's no shock that the predator gets loose...
This leads into "Circle of Enemies". Ray's recovering from the events from "Game of Cages" when he's lured back to Los Angeles by his old gang friends. It turns out an old enemy is implanting Ray's friends with predators as part of a game with very high stakes.
So I loved the three books and am starting on the prequel - "Twenty Palaces" - now. Connolly's got a good, gritty world with some seriously messed-up Lovecraftian stuff going on. His narrative style is engaging and I find I like Ray Lilly as a character. There's a few points, mostly in "Game of Cages" when the story drags a bit, but every book has some solid payout.
I'm tempted to compare it with Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series. Both series are told via first person point-of-view. Both series have a hard-bitten protagonist in a modern world that possesses magic. Both are outsiders and both get the crap kicked out of them a lot. Both are badasses.
That said, it's an unfair comparison, I think.
Butcher's Dresden and Connolly's Lilly are just very different characters in too many basic ways. Both are awesome but they just aren't the same.
I have high hopes for "Twenty Palaces" and hope Connolly decides to revisit the world at some point. I've tried his foray into more traditional fantasy "The Way into Chaos" but haven't felt the story grip me in the same way as the "Twenty Palaces" books. I suppose I should give it another try at some point.
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