They keep on trying

There’s something a bit disingenuous about reviewing the tenth book in a series.  After all, if I’ve read this far, obviously I enjoy them.  The best one can do is discuss its merits relative to other books in the series.  Fortunately, as I’ve noted before, these are not reviews so much as thoughts about my reading experience, so I’ll bull ahead anyway.

First, a bit of context.  Glen Cook’s Garrett books began as an homage to Raymond Chandler.  Cook planted a Marlowe-like detective in the midst of a carnivalesque high-fantasy city.  He mixed in his own sense of history, especially working class and military history.  TunFaire is a city in the throes of an extended war.  It’s US in the midst of WWII, with all the men away and their jobs being taken by elves and dwarfs and rat people.  There’s politics, race, PTSD, and socio-economic commentary alongside crazy magic and classic mystery.

Subsequent novels added layers in the form of a dense tapestry of recurring characters.  Minor characters from early books become major ones later on.  Sidekicks become allies and friends.  Lovers come and go.  Secondary characters have their own trajectories–changing careers, falling in and out of love, making connections among themselves.  History progresses, the tides of war shift, and these have an impact on the character of the city and the characters in the city.

Yet Cook never loses the sense of what initially made the series work–wisecracking hero, complex mysteries, beautiful and mysterious women, baleful magic.  In short, all the pieces that make it prime, lightweight summer beach reading (or whatever your equivalent is).

Angry Lead Skies is a pretty straightforward Garrett tale.  It lacks the direct line to Chandler that characterizes Old Tin Sorrows (#4), the gonzo feel of Petty Pewter Gods (#8), or the bleak, paranoia-fueled grimness of Faded Steel Heat (#9).  My initial reaction was that the introduction of bug-eyed aliens was going to be a disaster (minor spoiler there, but it becomes pretty obvious, pretty fast).  But as the book rolls on, Cook turns it into a typical Garret caper with a healthy dose of twists and turns.

A number of favorite characters return, and Cook uses them well to suggest our hero may actually be growing.  The events of the previous novel were pretty grim, even by Garrett’s standards, and left a bit of a hollow feel at the end.  In this one, we see a somewhat more mellow Garrett.  His treatment of Pular Singe, the rat-woman, is especially interesting, as we see Garrett reevaluating his own opinions and focusing a bit more on the needs of others.  Even his interactions with new character, Kip, suggest a growing maturity:

I felt like somebody’s dad, spouting clichés. Then, of course, I felt really awful because I was old enough to understand what the clichés were all about. Embarrassment followed that as I remembered the cocksure boys we’d been when we were getting showered with the stupid stuff that turned out to be Joe Everyman’s way of trying to pass along his accumulated wisdom.  I resented his advice almost as much as I’d resented advice from men of my father’s generation when I was fifteen. I guess neither the old men nor the young men ever learn, but they keep on trying.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few books as there seems to be a gradual character progression going on.  It reminds me a bit of, well, life.  Many books or series show powerful or transformative character arcs, but we all know the real world rarely works that way.  If people change, it is most often by degrees, slowly and gradually, until they wake up and realize they’re in a different place than they were ten years ago.  It feels a bit like Cook is working that sort of magic here.

That sort of magic is Cook’s trademark.  As much as his typical material is fantastical, it feels more real than most fantastic fiction because it fails to deliver standard narratives or arcs.  He messes with time, breaks plot formulas, kills characters in accidents or in ways that are frankly undramatic but have subsequent dramatic impact.  In short, his fiction emulates life in it’s frequent lack of pattern.  Some people see it as a fault in his work, but considering where he learned to write, I see it as a deliberate break from the restrictions of genre and formula.  But I digress.  Some other day I’ll share a longer essay on why I so deeply admire Cook’s work.

For now, I’ll say simply that Angry Lead Skies is another solid entry in an enjoyable series.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll like, if you like this kind of thing.

(And a good example of why you should never judge a book by its cover.  The covers for most editions of this series are just awful.)

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