Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Bookshelf: Season of Peril by Michales Warwick Joy

Buy Season of Peril from Amazon here
, by Michales Warwick Joy, is a book I picked up at a science fiction convention in Columbia, Missouri in either 2004 or 2005, and have now just gotten around to reading. For me, that’s good turnaround time. It was published by Tigress Press, a small Columbia publisher, so it’s probably not gotten a lot of exposure on shelves. But more people really do need to know about this one; it’s an intense swords-and-sorcery actioner that harkens back to the days of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, back when fantasy books didn’t have to have a map in front. Lean, suspenseful, and surprising, this is a page turner that anyone interested in fantasy literature should pick up, because it’s the sort of thing the genre ought to do more often.

There’s something stalking the streets of the Walled City; some horrific creature killing people in brutal ways. Margar, formerly employed by the city’s Prince to drive out a cult of wizards, is enlisted to catch the thing or things responsible. A disastrous hunt one night reveals that there’s more than one of these strange monsters about, and Margar teams up with a professional monster hunter, among other people, to try and put an end to the menace. It all has something to do with the caverns under the city, and why it was built in the first place, and why nobody can enter or leave...

The “monster story” is more common than you’d think in fantasy, and the basic premise works well for the genre; it’s an obvious hook familiar from countless B-movies, and provides excuses for scares and brutal violence. Joy delivers this quite effectively, with sharp writing that conveys the immediacy of the action in a way that’s surprisingly easy to follow. (This is always something I have a hard time with as reader and writer, so to see it done so well is a real surprise.) Of course, extending this premise beyond a short story requires a lot to be lurking beneath the surface, and you should be prepared for some truly outrageous plot twists. In some ways this is a work of two halves, and the transition from one to another is disconcerting at first. Somehow the author ties it all together; a lot of thinking has gone into this backstory.

Still, the premise is accessible enough that in 265 pages we still have room for quite a bit of character development. Margar is the sort of figure you would expect to see in a modern cop drama; scarred, weary, and uncertain about his future after a life of service. He values the friendships he makes even as he’s suspicious of everyone. The other characters are well drawn in the brief space that we know them, though Okogawa suffers a bit from so obviously being from “Fantasy Japan” despite the rest of the book’s lack of geographic and ethnic parallels. The relationships of the characters are believable and develop in interesting ways; there are always more secrets to be revealed, seemingly for everyone.

I actually find myself at a loss for words simply because the book is this good. There isn’t much to harp on, and so much of what makes it work is simply in being well-written, in exhibiting the kind of economy and momentum you’d see in a good horror movie. The brevity of the work probably made it a tough sell for publishers, but stretching it out any further would have ruined things. Even the tone is right; it’s dark, and the action can get very gory indeed, but we don’t become bogged down in the grimness. The story’s denouement drags a little, mainly because there’s a lot to tie up, but even though this clearly isn’t the kind of Extruded Fantasy Product where you have to commit to three or more books to get the whole story (not that there’s anything- well, too much of anything wrong with that), it leaves the door open for similar adventures.

In short, SEASON OF PERIL is a book you should read. I’d meant to get around to it for a while, and it more than delivered on my expectations. Maybe if we get more word of mouth going on this thing it’ll find the audience it deserves. I hope all twelve of you bear that in mind.

Grade: A-

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