“The passenger beside me was Annalise Powliss. She stood about five foot nothing, was as thin as a mop handle, and was covered with tattoos from the neck down. Her hair was the same dark red as the circled F’s I used to get on my book reports, and she wore it cropped close to her scalp. It was an ugly cut, but she never seemed to care how she looked. I suspected she cut it herself.
She was my boss, and she had been forbidden to kill me, although that’s what she most wanted to do.
“Where are we going?” I asked for the fourth time.
She didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking to me except to tell me where to drive. To be honest, I didn’t blame her. She had good reason to hate me.
At the moment, though, she and I had a job to do and all I knew about it was this: Annalise was on her way to kill someone. Maybe several someones. I was supposed to help.” ““ Child of Fire
The urban fantasy market has swelled over the last several years. As more and more titles join the ranks, it’s rare to come across someone with a unique take on the genre. There are more love triangles, Mary Sues, and undiscovered vampire lineages than you can shake a fairy at. Despite that, I keep consuming them like the pop culture potato chips they are. Last year I was thrilled to discover the Sandman Slim books and this year I waited anxiously for the next Alex Craft novel. Since I’m done reading all of those, I turned recently to a series I’d heard some buzz about and never quite got around to reading ““ the Twenty Palaces novels by Harry Connolly.
I just finished the last of the trilogy two days ago and already I’m anxious to get my hands on another dose of Ray Lilly, our wooden man protagonist, and his boss, the sorcerer Annalise. Ray is an ex-con whose life is in hock to the Twenty Palace society, an organization of sorcerers dedicated to hunting down and exterminating all sources of magic in our world. He’s a “wooden man,” an expendable thug, for the high ranking mage Annalise, serving as her wheel man, her luggage handler, and her doormat as the two track down rouge magicians and the “predators” ““ think Eldritch horrors ““ that they let loose into our world.
The horrors in the novels are clearly Lovecraftian influenced and the magic and its stakes are brutal. There’s a correspondingly high innocents-and-bystander body count. Despite the “urban fantasy” moniker most of the action takes place in rural, blue collar towns in the Pacific Northwest (and one side trip to LA) ““ a misty, muddy update on Lovecraft’s New England. This helps to ground the more outrageous occult action, which moves at a breathtaking pace in the trilogy.
Ray isn’t necessarily a likable protagonist ““ he tries to be a decent guy, but he’s an ex-con asked to do some ugly things to keep the world safe. He struggles to hold onto his humanity in the face of monsters. That, in itself, makes me predisposed to like him. Nor is he an uber-powered killing machine ““ aside from a couple of protective spells tattooed on his body and a single spell of his own making (the ghost knife, a clever substitute for the hardboiled detective’s revolver), he’s relatively human. All he has to go on is the scraps of information he knows about the society, the occasional intervention of his scary, violent boss, Annalise, and his own sense of self preservation. Ray gets bruised, burned, and broken, and sometimes he bruises, breaks, and burns others in the line of duty.
Three books in and Ray and Annalise’s backgrounds are still shrouded in mystery and the Twenty Palace society is an enigma that looms over the world. Some readers might find this frustrating, but I love parsing together the clues left in the books. There’s a sense of real discovery as the stories unfold in a way that seems organic and not hackneyed. I don’t need to know the ins and outs of how magic works in this alternate universe to get enjoyment out of the books, nor do I need to have the motives of the Twenty Palace society spelled out in minute detail. This is rare in a field that thinks shoving exposition into a character’s mouth is the only way to communicate world building. I can appreciate an author that respects my intelligence as a reader and lets me build the greater picture on my own.
Unfortunately, Del Ray declined to renew Connolly’s contract to write any further Twenty Palaces novels. Connolly has since published an e-book, Twenty Palaces .05, a prequel that explains how Ray and Annalise met, but that promises to be the last entry in the series for a very long time. It’s unfortunate ““ Connolly’s world is interesting and dark and his protagonists are still enough of enigmas to want readers to find out more about them. Meanwhile, I noticed that the bloated Anita Blake series is up past 21 barely-coherent novels. Sometimes, the publishing world is a cruel place.
Synopsis, Child of Fire:
Ray Lilly is living on borrowed time. He’s the driver for Annalise Powliss, a high-ranking member of the Twenty Palace Society, a group of sorcerers devoted to hunting down and executing rogue magicians. But because Ray betrayed her once, Annalise is looking for an excuse to kill him”“or let someone else do the job.
Unfortunately for both of them, Annalise’s next mission goes wrong, leaving her critically injured. With the little magic he controls, Ray must complete her assignment alone. Not only does he have to stop a sorcerer who’s sacrificing dozens of innocent lives in exchange for supernatural power, he must find”“and destroy”“the source of that inhuman magic.
Synopsis, Game of Cages:
As a wealthy few gather to bid on a predator capable of destroying all life on earth, the sorcerers of the Twenty Palace Society mobilize to stop them. Caught up in the scramble is Ray Lilly, the lowest of the low in the society–an ex”“car thief and the expendable assistant of a powerful sorcerer. Ray possesses exactly one spell to his name, along with a strong left hook. But when he arrives in the small town in the North Cascades where the bidding is to take place, the predator has escaped and the society’s most powerful enemies are desperate to recapture it. All Ray has to do is survive until help arrives. But it may already be too late.
Synopsis, Circle of Enemies:
Former car thief Ray Lilly is now the expendable grunt of a sorcerer responsible for destroying extradimensional predators summoned to our world by power-hungry magicians. Luckily, Ray has some magic of his own, and so far it’s kept him alive. But when a friend from his former gang calls him back to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, Ray may have to face a threat even he can’t handle. A mysterious spell is killing Ray’s former associates, and they blame him. Worse yet, the spell was cast by Wally King, the sorcerer who first dragged Ray into the brutal world of the Twenty Palace Society. Now Ray will have to choose between the ties of the past and the responsibilities of the present, as he and the Society face not only Wally King but a bizarre new predator.