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Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

Child of Fire by Harry Connolly
Book Name: Child of Fire
Author: Harry Connolly
Publisher(s): Del Ray
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy / Horror
Release Date: September 29, 2009

Child of Fire is the first novel in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces urban fantasy–well, perhaps urban horror would be a more appropriate term–series (three books long so far), featuring ex-convict Ray Lilly and the precarious situations he finds himself in due to his association with the Twenty Palaces Society. The Society is a group of mages who are less like benevolent protectors of humanity, and more like an autonomous black-ops crew. The Society eliminates magical threats, and damn any collateral damage: to innocents or allies or poor ol’ Ray.

The thing that surprised me the most about Child of Fire, is that, on paper, it should not be the type of book I enjoy.

I’m not a big fan of horror in general, and Lovecraftian horror in particular, that subgenre of horror which deals with the insignificance of humanity in the face of unknowable cosmic entities. There are a lot of well-written Lovecraftian tales out there, but I’m simply not the target audience, given my taste for stories that focus on human agency, on people and their choices. (That and I’m a scaredy cat.) However, while Child of Fire borrows liberally from aspects of Lovecraftian horror, with creatures and scenes which I found to be viscerally disturbing, it also allows the actions of human beings to matter, and allows them to push back against the darkness.

Humanity and Black Humor

It’s the human element that really drew me into Child of Fire. The protagonist, Ray Lilly, has a blunt sort of charm (which makes him an engaging viewpoint character), and manages to be extraordinarily capable at what he does, without being overpowered. Unlike other stories, where the tendency is to make the protagonist the demigod of kick-ass, Ray isn’t some sort of prodigy-of-all-trades. In fact, in the magical world he is one of the lowest of the low: he has no formal training, and knows a grand total of one offensive spell–and while he uses that spell with admirable creativity, he always seems outmatched…a good place for a hero to be.

Of course, the fact that his partner Annalise is the magical equivalent of a Terminator (mixed with a little Monkey D. Luffy) helps keep Ray’s abilities in perspective. The dynamic between Ray and Annalise is simply a joy to read, their mutual dislike (an understatement in the case of Annalise) ensuring that even simple conversations between the two crackle with both tension and a dark humor that is cathartic in an otherwise grim book.

I said, “Sorry I didn’t get killed.”

“There’s always next time,” she said.

The relationship between the two characters grows organically throughout the novel, but never completely overcomes that initial distrust. Considering the reason for their strained relationship, and the nature of Annalise’s mission, that’s a good thing. After all, nothing broken is ever truly the same afterward, no matter how good the fix.

The Intrusion Formula

While the characters are the heart of the novel, and the reason why I enjoyed it so much the first time I read it, what I grew to appreciate in subsequent readings is the way that Connolly manages to both hew to and eschew a tried and tested fantasy formula. Now, I’m going to get a bit technical from here on out, but I know that many Faction readers are also writers, and I want to talk about why I find Connolly’s structure of the novel to be so intriguing.

Child of Fire is, to borrow terminology from Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (a well to which I’ll often return), an “intrusion” fantasy. Here, the fantastic is seen as a bringer of chaos, intruding into a “normal” world of order and predictability. In the intrusion fantasy, the Other must be investigated and repulsed, and it’s a type of story often found in urban fantasy. The prevalence of the intrusion fantasies in the subgenre is one of the reasons, I think, that many urban fantasies seem so similar to each other…all the more so because the intrusion fantasy is so difficult to subvert. For an intrusion fantasy to work, you need to have both “latency” (that sense of something horrible waiting just beyond our field of vision) and “escalation” (that gradual but inevitable increase in the scope of the horror), and there doesn’t seem to be that many techniques that an author can use to achieve those effects.

On one hand, Child of Fire sticks to the intrusion formula: Ray and Annalise are practically the only ones who see that something rotten is happening in Hammer Bay; there’s an emphasis on the authenticity of what one senses, as opposed to what one knows (Ray is alerted to magical attacks not by any special knowledge, but by the feel of the spells tattooed on his body); and, of course, the main intruding “Other” is not revealed until the end of the story. Now, don’t get me wrong–adhering to genre conventions can be a good thing: one of the reasons we’re genre fans is that we enjoy seeing what authors can do to push a genre’s tropes to the next level. Connolly doesn’t disappoint. For instance, it’s common in intrusion fantasies for the protagonist to also, in some way, be an “intruder” (someone outside the norm). But Connolly heightens that feeling, as Rey isn’t only an intruder in Hammer Bay–he’s also treated as a pariah by his ostensible ally, Annalise, whose distrust of him serves to keep him ignorant of (and thus a stranger to) the world of magic. Connolly then adds another layer: Ray unconsciously seems to relish this role as intruder. There’s a throwaway line early on in the novel that I didn’t really notice the first time I read the book. Ray breaks into someone’s house and thinks, “There’s a feeling of power that comes from invading someone’s space.” That line not only gives us insight into Rey’s character, but also, without the reader realizing it, helps contextualize the incursions of the Predators, and in this way subtly links both protagonist and antagonist. It’s these little things that add depth to a story.

New Paths to Horror

But Connolly’s writing impresses me the most when he strays beyond the bounds of an intrusion fantasy and still manages to create a cohesive story. For instance, intrusion fantasies usually start slow and quiet, then build to a crescendo. Not this one. The first chapter of the book is a mish-mash of horror and confusion, and since Rey has no idea what is going on, neither does the reader. What follows, instead of a linear escalation of conflict (with enemies getting stronger due to quality/quantity), is something more akin to a roller coaster ride, with Rey going from massive supernatural peril to facing a group of toughs in an alley. And yet it doesn’t feel like Rey is in any less danger because, as I mentioned, Connolly does such a good job making Rey both capable and vulnerable. The result is that you never quite know what to expect–the most mundane situations can turn apocalyptic in a heartbeat, while on the other hand, powder kegs of coiled tension simply do not go off. Well, at least not until the end, where everything that can go “boom” does, in fact, go “boom”.

Connolly also approaches the creation of latency in a different fashion. Instead of keeping what is going on in Hammer Bay a secret, then slowly dealing out more and more information to increase the feeling that something is wrong, Connolly gives you the “what” in the first two chapters and you know from that point that the entire town has been damned. It’s the “why” and the “how” of the horrors that Connolly plays close to the chest.

Bottom Line

Child of Fire isn’t for everyone. It deals with gruesome deaths, often of children; magic is intentionally shrouded in mystery and likely not systematized; and by the time the Big Bad makes its appearance, it inevitably cannot live up to our mental image of the type of creature that can cause such horrors. But that last is a characteristic of intrusion fantasies (the unknown is always more terrifying than the known), and the rest is more a function of story design as opposed to story quality. The bottom line is, if you want a grim urban fantasy with a sympathetic underdog as a main character, if you want a story where Nameless Horrors are not above getting their asses (symbolically) kicked, then this novel is for you. (And did I mention that it’s $0.99 for the Kindle edition?)


One Comment

  1. […] 2) Paolo Gabriel V. Chikiamco writes a very interesting (and positive) review of Child of Fire at Fantasy Faction: “While the characters are the heart of the novel, and the reason why I enjoyed it so much the first t…” […]

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