This one is an interesting one. It’s an advance publication copy (and I have to apologise now, I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of weeks because I got myself in a backlog over Lovecraft) for a book that came out early this month. So I feel like I can’t dislike it too much because… y’know… free book?
To be serious, I was really keen to read this, because it sounds so very much like my thing. Urban fantasy London magical detectives, you say? Yes please. The cover picture is a collie looking unimpressed? Excellent. Seriously, look how unamused she looks. Anyway, considering my love for the Rivers of London books and Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels (which I never ‘blogged about because I am rubbish, but I intend to re-read and enthuse about at some point soon), I figured I’d probably be onto a winner with this one. And I was… kinda?
First thing’s first, I really did enjoy reading it. Genuinely, there were bits where I smiled, or pulled faces (and probably weirded out people on the Tube) and I did at one point very nearly miss my stop going to work. These are all definite signs of a Good Book. But – and I’m sure you could see there was a But coming – I don’t love it. Not necessarily because there are particular flaws with the book itself (I do have some niggles and I’ll get to them later) but because it’s in precisely the genre that it’s in and that I was so keen to read. If you’re going to go into something that’s got the Alex Verus novels, and Aaronovitch and Griffin in it… and the Dresden Files if you go outside London… you’ve got some really hard competition here, so you’re going to need to be stunning to measure up. And if you’re not – even if you’re pretty good – it’s going to feel worse than it is because… well… comparison. Much like what happened with The City’s Son, this can go quite wrong.
Now, this is not as bad as The City’s Son (as I say, I actually enjoyed reading this) but there’s a feeling of… not quite finished to it? Or not quite polished maybe. I tend to find, for me anyway, that dialogue is what divides the books that feel really lovely and the ones that have… rough edges. This is going to come up again in my post about The Shepherd’s Crown, just to have you warned. If dialogue feels awkward, or a bit unnatural, or just… not quite right… the whole book won’t sit well with me and I’ll grump and grumble. And so it is here. There’s nothing particularly that I can put my finger on that he does wrong… there’s just a sense of unnatural awkwardness that gets in the way of it feeling like real speech.
Similarly (but also sort of oppositely), Nexus aims for a sort of unheroic realism – the lead being a bit useless in the fight, having no smart-arse quips, just… stumbling through the story like an actual person would – that’s so alien to the genre (and let’s be honest, to fiction in general) that it feels ironically unnatural. We’re used to fiction having that polish of unreality, the neatness and the coincidence and the luck and the cleverness that reality just doesn’t have, so when you stray too far from it, the book feels awkward. I think you’d need to be very very good indeed to write a fully plausible, fully realistic fantasy book, in terms of character ability. At some point, there needs to be something a bit unbelievable, just to keep the book going. And there isn’t, not really. I mean, there’s the fantasy element, but that’s sort of a separate issue. Maybe this is just me, but I need my hero to be well… special somehow. There has to be something. You want him to be “just some guy” so that the reader can identify with him… but not too much, because then why would they want to? It’s a fine line, and we’ve gone a bit too far towards real here. And so it feels… weird. Off.
However, all that awkwardness aside, it is a good, fun story. I rather like the supporting characters, especially the Professor and the plot twists (which are the excellent kind of silly). It feels like it could have been really great… it just needs a little bit more sparkle. And maybe a touch more length. It’s a very slim novel, and I got through it in about two days without trying particularly hard. I think if we’d had a bit more space for character development, it might have done something to ease the awkwardness and give us more time to get to know (and thus get used to and enjoy) the characters. Like I said, it made me smile. I’ll definitely read any sequels that occur, because I think this can definitely get better, and if it does, it would be so, so worth reading.