Good Guys is a new urban fantasy novel from Steven Brust. Brust is the author of the long running Jhereg fantasy series. Urban fantasy is, thus, a slight departure for him, but I’m happy to report that it’ a rather fun read, and one which is willing and able to explore the ethical and moral dimensions of what are, in effect, magical powers.
The world is one familiar to any of us. Late-stage capitalism rules the roost. It’s our world, fast cars, skyscrapers and all. Except a few people in that world can do magic. Teleportation. Shielding from bullets. Precognition. Piecing together patterns from loose threads. These people are split into ideological camps. There are those who are prepared to use their skills to make money in less than ethical ways, and those who refuse to do so. A détente exists between the two ideologies, and both are broadly more concerned with cleaning up the mess of accidental or untrained magic use than with fighting each other. That said, the camp of our protagonists feels more like an underfunded bureaucracy than a secret world of wizards. Everyone’s working for minimum wage, and there are expense claims to be put in after interdimensional travel. No-one has the time to do the job as well as they’d wish, and the group doesn’t have the funds to do as much as it would like to. For a secret organisation of magic users, its institutional underpinnings are delightfully mundane. The griping about claiming mileage after a magical duel, or filling out forms in triplicate to justify magical artefact use work to accentuate the strangeness of magical abilities, whilst grounding them in the modern world.
Our protagonist, Donovan, is a fixer, working for the Foundation, one of the “Good guys”. Along with his team, he investigates unauthorised or dangerous uses of magic. This time, though, they’re investigating a murder. Donovan is focused, perhaps a little curt, and trying very hard to remain a professional. His team consists of Susan, an athlete with a penchant for martial arts, and Marci, whose lack of experience is more than made up for by her enthusiasm. They’re a tight knit group, with a closeness born of horrific circumstance and their own unique powers. They’re backed by a diverse and convincing ensemble cast – from the tightly focused researcher down to the broke-but-thoughtful mercenary. There’s some deeply eerie people on display here too, and, given the title, some antagonists who, perhaps, don’t entirely see themselves as bad people. This is a book prepared to believe that everyone is the hero of their own story, and unflinchingly explores that moral vein.
The plot is one part murder mystery, one part buddy-cop movie, and one part supernatural magical explosions. The investigation is tense, and the leads, blinds and red herrings the group goes down are plausible, whilst the eventual denouement carries a degree of catharsis. There’s a thoughtful exploration of our heroes moral basis for what they do – tracking down rogue magic users and, euphemistically, dealing with them. In between the investigating and the hard thinking, there’s the occasional shootout, there’s time stops, and people spontaneously catch fire. This is a book which embraces and dives deep into the question of rightful force, and into the ambiguity of a team which does what it thinks is right, at personal cost and at a cost to those they interact with. Above all though, it’s fun. This is a text which challenges preconceptions, and makes you think – and then blows up the building. Where interrogations are largely polite, but when deaths do occur, they’re appalling. The tightly focused mystery is what kept me turning the pages, and the top-notch characterisation gave me the emotional stakes to make the story feel real.
As an entry in urban, contemporary fantasy, this is an intelligent work, which challenges genre preconceptions and those of the reader, but also isn’t afraid to have fun. Gie it a try, you won’t regret it.