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Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Chasing Embers by James Bennett
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Book Name: Chasing Embers
Author: James Bennett
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Release Date: September 6, 2016

Behind every myth there is a spark of truth.

There’s nothing special about Ben Garston. He’s just a guy with an attitude in a beat-up leather jacket, drowning his sorrows in a downtown bar. Or so he’d have you believe. What Ben Garston can’t let you know is that he’s also known as Red Ben. He can’t let you know that the world of myth and legend isn’t as make-believe as you think, and it’s his job to keep that a secret. And there’s no way he can let you know what’s really hiding beneath his skin.

But not even Ben knows what kind of hell is about to break loose. Because the delicate balance between his world and ours is about to be shattered.

Something’s been hiding in the heart of the city – and it’s about to be unleashed.

James Bennett’s trilogy of Ben Garston novels wrapped up earlier this month with Burning Ashes, so this feels like the perfect moment to slip back in time and revisit the start of that series. That back-cover copy doesn’t really scratch the surface though, and does the plot itself a bit of a disservice too – Chasing Embers certainly isn’t a standard Jim Butcher “dirty streets of hell” clone. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, even if it does start out in a dingy gutter bar in New York.

The first thing to mention is that Bennett’s prose veers heavily towards the epic and the introspective. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t. The reader follows the very flawed Ben Garston so closely that you might be riding him bareback. This can sometimes feel a bit wearing, especially when Ben is in one of his down moods, but on the other hand that close proximity to the dragon himself is exactly what makes this book work so well, and the worldbuilding and heavy emotional layering deserves the rich writing style. You can see Bennett’s love for old-school epic fantasy playing out on the page, especially in the major twist in the relationship between Ben and Rose that happens late on in the story.

Unlike Butcher, or Aaronovitch, Chasing Embers doesn’t limit itself to one city – or even one country. The book is a hunt across three continents for answers to “Red” Ben’s questions – from the US to the UK, and through the Alps and over the Mediterranean to Egypt. This is a widescreen epic, and an inclusive one too, aware that there are more myths and legends than just the standard Grimms’ fairy tales. The chapters set in Egypt and Punt are fascinating and brilliantly written.

Bennett claims to be inspired by James Bond as much as fairy tales, and that comes across well in the story too – the villains of the piece wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond movie, especially the extravagant Moore years, and the globetrotting leads to an explosive climax that is part Bond, part Indiana Jones, part Sahara, and part Wagnerian too. And just in case you think Bennett is taking everything far too seriously, amongst the jokes there are frequent references to Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age mainstay and apparent model for Ben Garston himself.

The only negative part of all this, aside from Ben Garston’s agonising slowness on the uptake, is the use of a deus ex machina (or more accurately, a fae ex machina) in the final battle. It’s a good deus ex machina, to be fair. My initial impression of the book was something like: Nic Cage rebooting Highlander, with Jerry Bruckheimer pulling the strings. Not entirely true perhaps, but certainly in that ball park. There’s a zest and spirit in Chasing Embers that a lot of urban fantasy lacks, and again that determination to take the story further than the standard Western European myths takes the book up to the front of the crowd.

If you’ve missed the legend of “Red” Ben Garston so far, then it’s one I can wholeheartedly recommend you dive into now that the trilogy is complete.

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