Monday, July 6, 2015

A Murder of Mages - Marshall Ryan Maresca

I knew I was going to like A Murder of Mages when I read the title. It was
clever, it had undercurrents of subtle humour and darkness, and it promised a great deal. A bit like the book underneath it, really.

Maresca gives us the world of Maradain, a city seemingly at boiling point. There are groups of magic users, working together in groups as ‘Circles’. There are other mages, unmonitored outside those circles. There’s an ongoing war – and as a consequence, there are groups of returning veterans. There’s the poor, the needy, the criminal. And where there’s crime, Maresca gives us the Constabulary. The world of Maradain is a curious mixture of the oppressively claustrophobic and the terrifyingly expansive. On the one hand, the entire narrative takes place within the city walls. The wider world comes to the reader in asides, in passing remarks, in assumptions made by characters in dialog. The presence of the city, a dark, grimy, lively place, invades the reader by degrees. It’s not a place that leaps off of every page – but rather, one that seeps into your fingers as you turn those pages.

The centre of the narrative, however, is crime.

 Specifically, the investigation of a case by two members of Maradain’s city police force. It’s rare to get this sort of boots-on-the-ground view in fantasy (the only immediate comparison I can make is Pratchett’s Guards!, Guards!), and if nothing else did, the sheer novelty might carry the text. Fortunately, it has more going for it in any case. The centre of the text  is the relationship between these two investigators, our protagonists. One is the first female inspector in the Constabulary. The other is a borderline eccentric, an uncircled mage, with undertones of Sherlock Holmes.

The two of them begin, as is traditional, unsure whether they need each other. Over the course of the text, their relationship grows more complex, as they begin to rely upon each other. This isn’t the will-they-won’t they romance, however – it’s a nicely drawn platonic relationship, camaraderie under fire and with a shared purpose serving to tie the two together. They’re also both fascinating characters in their own right. The mage is tightly wound, intense, and extremely analytical – watching him tear into the deeper aspects of their case, whilst remaining slightly detached from those around him, is wonderful. Seeing his relationship with a large, boisterous, and occasionally broken family is also a joy – the family dynamics are complex, barely visible to the reader, and hold promise for impact on later books.

By contrast, the other inspector’s struggles to be taken seriously are tough to read – but her no-nonsense attitude, professionalism, and amply demonstrated ability to crack skulls are a similarly great read. She also has a complex relationship waiting for her at home – and the frailty of the emotions here, the implied depth, leaves the reader swimming in very deep waters. Maresca isn’t afraid to throw in a punch to the emotional gut when required, but manages to wrap it under a complex layer of humanity that leaves it feeling affecting and genuine.

Really, the relationship between these two characters sparkles. The dialog is first rate, the relationship feels plausible, and, most importantly, it feels real – fraught with all the little knocks and lifts that tie real people together.

The plot, beginning with an investigation into the gruesome murder of a mage, is quite intriguing stuff in itself.  The reader is learning the details of the murder, as well as the motive, along with the investigators. It’s well paced, and there’s a nice mix of action and moments of quiet reflection. There’s also the requisite red herrings – but pleasantly enough, each of the steps forward in the investigation feels consistent, logical, and plausible. I was left trying to work out whodunit until the last couple of pages, and there were some genuinely tense moments in there.

The fantasy police procedural is a rarity, and this is a good one. It’s accessible and easy to read. The world presented is sparse, but has all the details the reader needs. The mystery itself is both suitably obfuscated and a lot of fun – and the relationship between the lead characters is pitch perfect. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this one’s worth your time.

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