The Holver Alley Crew is the first in a new fantasy series from Marshall Ryan Maresca. It’s set in his ‘Maradaine’ world, which already has a few other series running inside it. Rather than detectives or vigilantes, however, this book is focused on, well, thieves, and a fantasy-style heist.
Maradaine is a large, multi-districted city, and it has the energy and diversity on the page to back that up. There’s chemists shops, bars, restaurants, and all of the apparatus of civic life. Up to a point, anyway. We’re not in Maradaine to see the civic buildings or scenic police headquarters this time though – here, we’re in Holver Alley. It is, to be kind about it, not the nicest place in the city.
The law doesn’t show up much in Holver, perhaps because it’s been paid not to, and perhaps because it’s indifferent. Instead, there’s a combination of people organising for themselves, and a more criminal element sitting over the top, skimming whatever cream is available. Maresca makes it at once fantastic and familiar – the urban issues faced in the Alley are those common to large conurbations everywhere, but in this case the gangs have crossbows and mages. The alley succeeds in feeling like a neighbourhood – one where everyone knows everyone else. They may not like everyone else, but that’s hardly the point. This is a relatively small, close-knit community, used to being ignored or acted upon by those above it in the social food chain – and that closeness and strength give the book its heart – personified by the links between the characters.
Before talking about the characters though, I wanted to mention something else done well in the background – the stratification of society, even in Holver Alley. There’s a sense of the regular people, and those just getting by, dipping in and out of the fringes of the extra-legal. Then there’s the wealthy, whose immense influence allows them to break into communities, to buy influence and wellbeing, to set their own needs above the community – their own goals over the whole. It’s a quiet thread this, running beneath angry dialogue and the occasional brawl within the text, but it’s an important and powerful one.
Our protagonists are the Rynax brothers – once professional thieves. Now, after the war that has shaped Maradaine has come to a close, one of them is a settled family man – and the other is suffering from combat strain. Their relationship is close, and friendly, and the effort they put into sustaining the link between them, even when they appear to be poles apart, is obvious. Watching the one interact with his family, his love for his life and his baby is clearly balanced closely with concern for his brother, a man who believes he might lash out with lethal force at any moment. Here is a Rynax everyman, a voice for the reader.
The other Rynax, damaged by the war, is something else entirely. He’s tortured by his concern for his brother and their family, and the feeling that he’s only one poorly placed word away from catastrophic levels of violence. There’s the sense of a man on the boil, struggling to drag himself back from the brink. But he’s also quick on his feet, mentally and physically – watching him throw a plan together is breathtaking, and often highly entertaining. Watching him take on groups of antagonists singlehanded is similar – but emotionally leavened by the possibility that this wrath could be turned on his friends. Still, combat shock is being looked at here in the raw, treated sensitively, with a string feeling of the impact it has on both the individuals suffering from it, and those close to them. There’s emotional heft here, rawness and a sense of understanding, which makes, at times, for a heartbreaking read – but at the same time, one which feels genuine. I’d recommend the book for this portrayal alone.
The Rynax boys are backed up by a cast of misfits – from street urchins with a bad attitude, to crossbow-snipers with a bad attitude, to carriage drivers and strongmen. As each has a role in the crimes shown off here, each gets their time on the page, and a little more room to shine – but together, in gestalt, they’re a charming, entertaining and prickly mob, whom you’d be happy to buy a round for – with an eye on your wallet.
The same can’t really be said for the antagonists. Much of the text, their composition and goals seem mysterious. I’d like to have seen a little more from them, to give them a modicum of the depth and emotional connection that we have with the Rynax boys and their team. On the other hand, the more the enemy present themselves, the more unpleasant they obviously are – and so on that basis, they serve their purpose perfectly well. There’s a few moments where villainy is laid bare – it would be nice to have seen it seeping off the pages.
The plot – well, no spoilers, but this is basically a heist novel. The Rynaxes get a team together to investigate why their lives are suddenly in turmoil, and this calls for a certain amount of breaking, entering, and indeed looting. There’s some fantastic planning scenes, as the team pieces together exactly what they’re going to do and when. Then there’s the tension of the job, and this is something which is brought out to perfection – each action is watchmaker-precise, and each failure can lead to a cascade of other failures – watching the team anticipate and deal with these (or not) is agonising and wonderful. The whole narrative is tightly plotted, and each page makes you want to turn to the next – it’s got fires, knife fights, brawls, daring escapes, explosions, and a lot of heart – and as such, I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the Holver Alley Crew go onto from here.