Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“There are some things man was not meant to know.”
-Larry Niven, Unfinished Story #1
This column’s theme: We’re Not the Ministry of Magic
There are a number of examples in fiction of secret agencies whose sole purpose is managing the supernatural, and keeping the public from learning about it. Probably the most well known example was J.K. Rowling’s Ministry of Magic from the Harry Potter series. Here we are going to take a look at the flip side of that, where it’s humans trying to keep everybody from gaining forbidden knowledge, and sometimes they’re literally having a Hell of a time doing it.
So if you like:
The odd pop culture reference thrown in
You might like
The Good Guys by Steven Brust
Somebody is committing spectacular murders with magic, which sets Donovan’s team of secret society sponsored specialists into tracking them down. However, given the red tape and layers of compartmentalization they have to work through to get answers, they start questioning their mission and asking themselves if they really are the good guys.
“Wow,” said Marci. “You’re good at this.”
“Yeah, and you’re good at what you do. And Susan’s good at what she does. And so are most of the rest of the Foundation. They’re all good at what they do.”
“Nice to know we’re the good guys,” said Marci.
“If we are,” said Donovan.
Susan’s head snapped around. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m not sure they—we—are the good guys anymore.”
“Why?” said Susan.
“Why do I wonder? Because we’re after someone who’s killing members of the Roma Vindices Mystici, and from everything I know all the people he’s killing are assholes.”
“I think they—I mean we—are still the good guys,” said Susan.
“Yeah, because you’re a hippie chick who trusts everyone.”
“No, because if we were bad guys we’d be getting paid more than minimum wage.”
“Huh,” said Donovan.
“You know,” said Marci, “That’s actually kind of a good argument.”
Donovan thought about it. “Make sure you include the interrogation on your time sheets,” he said.
This was fairly fast read that featured characters with complex motivations and questionable morals, on both sides of the investigation. The world of The Good Guys has magic just under the surface and a few secret societies trying to keep it under wraps, and part of that is avoiding public displays of magic, which is where Donovan’s team comes in, trying to track down who’s murdering who and why, although they may not be happy with the answers that they get. I thought this was a relatively fresh take on urban fantasy, where it’s more of an FBI style investigation, rather than the Phillip Marlowe style private eye trying to sort it out. The writing is concise, and although it does jump around between multiple character’s viewpoints, Brust handles that pretty well. The mystery is well thought out, if a bit convoluted, and does pay off in the end without any trickery.
Or if you like:
Protagonists struggling with mental illness
Real movie magic
Finding out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real
You might like:
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
The protagonist is a filmmaker, recruited out of a psychiatric hospital to join a team whose mental health issues make them uniquely suited to solve a mystery involving members of the Fairie Court, who have been running around Hollywood for years.
“So you think I fit some kind of qualifications?” I said, shoving my thigh and its silicone sheath into the socket of the prosthesis. “Now there’s a list I’d love to see.”
“Most of the list is confidential, but I can tell you some of it. I am looking for people with management potential, and your success as an independent filmmaker points to leadership skill and creative thinking. Then there is your diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and your willingness to accept and manage that condition, as well as your noted aversion to psychoactive drugs, legal or otherwise.”
I paused to sweep a hand pointedly around the room. “Is there something that makes you think I can function?”
“The twenty-five years of your life that elapsed before you did something colossally stupid.”
While there’s a lot going on here – the protagonist is a paraplegic with borderline personality disorder, picked to live in a house where everyone has psychiatric issues, and deal with rampant Fairies, it’s all handled surprisingly well. It’s a bit of a slow start, but as she struggles with herself and the acceptance of the new reality that illusion loving creatures are drawn to Hollywood (and really, where else would they rather be?) it smoothly integrates into an urban fantasy/noir detective story involving missing person(s) and something supernaturally bad. While the book is labeled first in a series, the story stands nicely on it’s own.
Or if you like:
British secret agencies
Naming schemes based on chess
The tone of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
Strong female protagonists with Welsh names
You might like
The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley
A woman with amnesia learns that someone in a secret government agency is trying to kill her, and has to impersonate herself to figure it out.
This is who I am, she thought bitterly. I don’t even get the luxury of not knowing what my name is. I don’t get a chance to start a life. Whoever this Myfanwy Thomas was, she managed to get me into a whole lot of trouble. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She looked around at the place she was in. Some sort of park. Willows drooped their long tendrils down around the clearing, and she was standing on what used to be a lawn but was rapidly becoming a mud hole. She came to a decision, pulled her feet out of the mire, and stepped carefully over the ring of bodies that were scattered around her. They were all motionless, and all of them were wearing latex gloves.
The Rook is a mix of spy thriller, detective story, and superhero novel, and while on paper that seems like quite a lot going on, and in practice it almost is, O’Malley keeps things together and keeps the story running along smoothly, as it turns out there’s a secret government agency that recruits people with ‘unique abilities’ to manage all manner of supernatural manifestations in England. I can’t say much about how things unfold without dropping spoilers, but was pleasantly surprised by the plotting in that that a reveal I’d thought would be saved for the end of the book happened in the middle, leaving me wondering where it was going from there. The tone of the book is mostly serious, with the characters finding themselves in some ludicrous situations that are all part of a day’s work, which reminded me, in tone, of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. There were a few slow spots, but they’re pretty short, and the last third of the book had me staying up too late to find out how it ended.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.