I really loved the opening of this, I have a thing for down-on-their-luck characters and this opener had a mage stuck in a cupboard trying to find ghosts he didn’t think existed for a shitty client who looks down her nose at him. Mages typically do well for themselves in this world, but for reasons that aren’t explained at the beginning, Nik is stuck doing odds jobs that barely making ends meet.
Nik has a friend named Benny… this friend is a low-level thief and conman living his life on barter of favors owed to him. He reminds me just a touch of Nobby Nobs because when he’s called out on his thieving he tends to act like the person has no idea what they’re talking about, and of COURSE he never was anywhere near that stolen item. This makes Nik very apprehensive to agree to help… who knows what Benny is about to get him involved in, but because he doesn’t want to potentially lose the only friend he has, he relents and agrees to help. The favor is a huge one, though. It involves breaking in the palace of a high mage and taking something out of it – what is most likely an impossible task.
When they find the item (a business ledger) something goes horribly wrong, and a master servant ends up dead. The ledger was booby trapped and Nik thinks the target was supposed to be himself and Benny, and now he’s got to figure out who wants them dead, or why they would want to frame him for murder.
The world-building was fantastic. I love it when I’m not getting info dumps via dialogue, when it comes together naturally without learning a large chunky history lesson. There’s so much world-building, too. Grey City, Middle City, Upper City all had distinct social classes, culture, and even accents. Everything was very detailed and thought out without being overwhelming. I love the idea of the Ash Guard, they are in effect a checks and balances system to the high mages. The ash they cover themselves in dispels and neutralizes any magic in the area rendering mages helpless. Different people internalize magic in different ways. MC sees colors, but other people taste it or hear music – and the magic itself is all stemmed from the decaying bodies of dead gods. Neat shit. I also love how the Gods in this world aren’t the typical God of Water or God of War or that kind of thing. The high mage that Nik tried to steal the ledger from is a worshiper of the God of Bees, and there are flowers strewn throughout his palace. It creates a lot of neat imagery.
The prose made me fly through this book, the dialogue is great, Benny had a distinct dialect but it wasn’t beating me over the head with it. I think dialects are most effectively used when it’s a light sprinkle rather than heavy usage that makes me slow down and re-read things to make sure I understood what the character was saying. The imagery used wasn’t based in descriptors which is very helpful for me. I struggle to create an image in my head based off phrasing like “pointed leathery face”, instead this author described Benny like this: “I had seen corpses dragged out of buried temples that had aged better” and that does help me ‘see’ the characters. I have one tiny nitpick with the prose and it’s that the word “microscopic” was used – now this world had musket style guns so maybe they do have a microscopes, but it wasn’t mentioned again after that so I can’t be sure.
The pacing was steady, I wouldn’t say it was constant action, this was more of a slow burn whodunnit type deal – but I never felt bored, I never felt like it dragged. I was really engaged because I was enjoying the main character so much. I feel like I got to know him very well and because of that it was easy for me to sink into the rest of the story. Nik is relatable despite not being well liked by his peers in the Grey City, he’s snarky which keeps him entertaining, and he’s loyal to his friends. He’s not a hero who rushes into danger without a second thought, but he’s not a coward, he’s a down to earth and easy to believe character rather than being overpowered and larger than life. I really enjoyed him.
Since this is still in the running for SPFBO I’m going to decline an official rating, I don’t want to step on toes or have someone read this and think this is an official score for SPBFO, it isn’t! It’s just another bloggers perspective – we are all different and like different things so all I’ll say is best of luck to Patrick going forward in the competition! May the odds ever be in your favor!