First Watch is the debut fantasy work by Dale Lucas. It’s set in a dilapidated, sharp-edged urban environment, populated by a plethora of species and cultures. It follows a pair of mismatched guardsmen as they investigate murder, mayhem and conspiracy in the city. If I had to draw an analogy, I’d say it evokes the same sort of mood as the action movies of the eighties – with smart mouthed, bickering cops, unapologetic violence, and shades of noir flickering in the city lights.
The partnership between a rookie and a veteran guard is the beating heart of the text. Rem, the rookie, is a lapsed member of the nobility, quite, quite broke, and possibly a little too polite for a police force whose modus operandi is one short step above being a gang of legbreakers. Still, , he’s intelligent, and being new to the city, doesn’t carry the same preconceptions as some of his superiors, or some of the prejudices of his partner. Speaking of which – the other half of this dynamic duo is Torval. Torval’s a veteran – brusque, brutal, and with some rather unreconstructed opinions about Orcs. He’s a force of nature, to be sure, and set in his ways – an excellent counter to the more enthusiastic, more naïve Rem. Their conflicts, between ideals of what could be, and a more cynical acceptance of what currently is, define the text; as they work the case and grow closer thereby, the reader is drawn into the complex bounds of their unspoken discussions. In short, this relationship is a complex one, filled with hopes, broken promises, kept promises, large amounts of alcohol and, eventually, trust. It’s vivid, believable, and has resonance and depth which makes it entirely plausible. These two are wisecracking, slightly murderous, occasionally inept, well meaning, hard hearted po-lice, and a delight to read.
Their city is one drawn on racial lines, where the authority of the Guard falls beneath the heel of separate authorities. The elves, the orcs, the dwarves, they all have their own leaders, and they dispense their own justice. It’s a dirty town, where agreements are made and souls bartered for handfuls of coin. Where two guardsmen trying to sole a murder can get bound up in a web of intrigue and blood as easily as blinking. The city has a certain toxic life to it, once where segregation struggles against an economy that needs diversity, where racial tensions are exacerbated by socioeconomic factors. I’d like to see more of the city, to plumb its heights and depths. What we have is enough to provide a backdrop for the players; it would be marvellous to have more detail.
The plot is reminiscent of noir thrillers. There’s conspiracies, to be sure. Hidden agenda, from friends and enemies alike. The unspoken word is, in many cases, the most powerful one – and workig out what’s going on between the lines can be an exercise for the reader. Which is great – expecting the reader to pick up nuance, to follow along, to draw their own conclusions, false or otherwise, is marvellous. In between, there’s moments of genuine emotion, and a sense of friendship in between schemes and murder. It’s a buddy-cop movie with swords and sorcery, and a rather good one at that.
I’d like to see more of the series as it matures, but this is an impressive debut; if the fusion of fantasy and mystery is of interest, then this is a book you’ll want to try out.