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Uncanny Collateral by Brian McClellan

Uncanny Collateral by Brian McClellan
Book Name: Uncanny Collateral by Brian McClellan
Author: Uncanny Collateral by Brian McClellan
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Release Date: April 2, 2019

Alek Fitz is a collection agent. Not the most pleasant or glamorous of professions. Especially when your clients are corporations controlled by supernatural creatures who aren’t interested in repossessing cars or houses. Fairies and devils have desires that go beyond money.

Though neither cruel nor heartless, Alek has little sympathy for his targets. The way he sees it, if you’re dumb enough to sell your soul to Lucifer or Beelzebub for money or a sweet motorbike, there’s no use crying when someone comes along to collect on that debt. He’s just doing his job.

You might not agree with Alek’s position. But, give him his due, he has a lot less choice in the matter than his targets did. He was the price for one such bargain—his parents traded their first-born child for an unknown reward. Now he is literally company property, a slave to a ruthless and unpleasant boss who can hurt or even kill him at will. He has to take every job that comes up.

And it gets worse. Because Alek’s boss’s new client is the Grim Reaper himself.

That’s the setup for Brian McClellan’s short and punchy urban fantasy novella. Clocking in at around 150 pages long it still manages to hit most of the usual noir-ish urban fantasy beats. A femme-fatale (does the devil count?), a sleazy crime-boss, a friendly cop who might help you out if you promise to get the next round in, a less than savoury information-broker, an ambush or two and a ton of goons who just won’t see sense until their heads have been pounded into a wall or some cash gets splashed around.

Fitz himself definitely has a strong case of Urban Fantasy Protagonist. You might recognise the symptoms—he’s down on his luck, likes to drink, gets beaten up a lot, has very few friends but would die for the ones he’s got, tends to rub shoulders with supernatural creatures that could obliterate him with a thought and can’t resist sassing them.

There are a few things that set Alek apart from classic urban fantasy stalwarts like Harry Dresden, October Daye and Anita Blake. For one, he’s a bruiser. One of his mysterious parents was a troll, so things like car accidents and close-range shotgun blasts are little more than painful inconveniences for him. He’s not a magic user as such, though he’s more than happy to make use of magical tattoos and supernatural artefacts to get his job done. He’s got Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, tattooed on his right hand, Grendel’s claw on his left and a bunch of different tricks and charms to fall back on.

The most important of which is Maggie, his partner of sorts. Maggie is an ancient Djinn who is trapped in a ring but can still do a lot of magical surveillance and research on Alek’s behalf. Their snarky partnership is the main relationship in the story. It seems to be devoid of romantic tension and is actually quite a sweet friendship between two beings who are both trapped in a bad situation against their will. Each one highlights the other’s pain to the reader even as they support each other through it. I’d be tempted to check out future stories in this series just to see more of this friendship.

Another thing that makes Alek different is the fact that he’s literally not on the side of the angels, for this story at least. But I still found myself rooting for him, partly because his opponents are worse than him and partly because of the pains McClellan took to remind us that Alek has no choice in the matter. Also, because he shows that he really does care about those close to him. It’s easy to empathise with a character when simply having a night off with a friend is an important and precious goal for them.

We don’t get much time to spend in the world of Uncanny Collateral, but I enjoyed what I saw. McClellan has dug into folklore and mythology to find some more unusual creatures for Alek to encounter. Which for me immediately raises this story above the tales that focus mainly or exclusively on vampires and werewolves, as though those were the only things that ever went bump in the night. Admittedly I’m a little biased on that point because he threw draugr into the mix and stuck a lot closer to their origins than a certain best-selling video game I could mention. (It rhymes with pie-rim.) I have a soft spot for those super-powered Nordic undead monstrosities, if only because one of them is the main antagonist in my own, sadly neglected, WIP. Go team Norse!

Other highlights include a namedrop of the tooth fairy, ghouls, necromancers and imps (who are presented as a cross between classic fantasy goblins and just the worst kind of one-dimensional trash-human that may only exist in fiction).

The nature and purpose of souls was also handled in a fairly original way, enough to keep my attention and to set up lots of possibilities for future stories.

The idea of a world where the supernatural is out in the open and soul-harvesting is just another branch of capitalism also intrigued me. What if that arsehole boss you had once really was the devil? What if your boss was the devil and she/he/it was actually quite pleasant to work for? What kind of employee benefits do gods, monsters and faeries provide?

If you’ve read any of the Powder Mage books, then you won’t be surprised to learn that McClellan knows his way around a fight scene. He keeps up a good pace but still manages to sneak in some character information along the way. The action in this book is fast, brutal and occasionally beautiful.

The bullets traced crimson flowers across its chest.

I was usually confident that Alek would pull through his battles, but he never felt over-powered to me. He had to use all of the tools at his disposal to get by and Maggie screaming in his ear when danger is afoot adds a nice edge of panic to the proceedings.

Outside of combat, things flow along well too. Alek’s world-weary narration keeps the story engaging and there’s a decent cast of characters for him to bounce off. I particularly liked the shady information-broker who just happens to be one of the Cherubim (and not the cute kind). It’s genre standard to include casual jokes and pop-culture references of course but the double-act of Alek and Maggie keeps those humorous moments fresh. The story has that hard-to-pin-down quality that pulls you in and keeps you reading until you lose track of time. Props to McClellan for that, it’s hard to write a good story that’s easy to read.

If you like hard-boiled urban fantasy stories, then Uncanny Collateral is a good investment of your time and money. It also makes a great palate cleanser in between reading the weighty tomes that characterise epic fantasy and sci-fi. Fans of The Dresden Files, Shadowrun, Anita Blake, October Daye, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Geekomancy should absolutely check this story out.

A little shout-out before we wrap up. I heard about this novella by listening to The Sword and Laser—a long running SFF book-club and SFF news podcast presented by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt. Even if you don’t think that you can keep up with a monthly book club, this podcast is a great way to find new authors and to get up to speed with conventions, awards, interviews and anything else that might be happening in the busy world of SFF publishing.

One final note. Brian McClellan has self-published Uncanny Collateral. So, if you like the sound of Alek Fitz and his adventures then don’t wait to buy a copy. Get it now!

I received a digital copy of this book in return for an honest review.


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