Friday, January 09, 2009

Book Review: Blood Engines by T. A. Pratt

"I'm impressed, Marla. I was sure you'd check us into some fleabag in the Tenderloin." Marla glanced over. Rondeau stood on the balcony of their suite in a post hotel near Union Square, beneath the darkening sky. He seemed happy and relaxed, and for an irrational instant, she was furious with him--didn't he understand how serious things were? But of course he didn't, not really. Because she hadn't told him. Marla's life was threatened on a regular basis, and he probably thought this was just more of the same, an ordinary assassination plot. She hadn't elaborated, because she was ashamed of the position she'd let Susan put her in. Marla had never thought the woman was a real threat, and was paying the price for her carelessness now. She forced herself to answer him calmly. "The Tenderloin? Is that the meatpacking district?" She emptied her capacious leather bag onto the bed and started spreading things out. "I don't think San Francisco has a meatpacking district. But it's the seedy part of town, lots of strip clubs, bars, stuff like that. Seems like more of your kind of place." "I don't like going into strange dark alleys any more than you do, Rondeau. Back home, I know the dark alleys, and I know I'm the most dangerous thing that's likely to be walking up and down them. Now that I've pissed off one of the big local sorcerers--who's maybe a body-jumper, if what the old man told you is true--I plan to stay out of the shadows as much as possible. But you're right, I wouldn't have picked this hotel. I let Hamil make reservations for me. He thinks room service is humanity's greatest achievement." --Excerpt from Blood Engines by T. A. Pratt Blood Engines is a gritty, urban fantasy tale that doesn't pull any punches. That's how I would describe it, at least. It follows a sorcerer named Marla Mason, the guardian of a city called Felport, and her companion Rondeau, a spirit-in-a-bottle, if you will, who has, in the past, stolen the body of someone else. Marla has a big problem: one of her rivals is prepping a wicked spell that will end Marla's life and destroy Felport in the process. And Marla can't have any of that. Marla and Rondeau must go to San Francisco to find a magical artifact that will give Marla the power she needs to counter her rival's spell. Unfortunately, nothing is ever as simple as searching for buried treasure. There's a new boy in the City By the Bay and he's knocking off local sorcerers one by one; and Marla is caught in the middle of it. With the local talent suspecting her to be the local murderer, her wicked rival planning to cast Marla out death-style, and a disturbing murderer running around killing people with poisonous frogs, will Marla be able to get the artifact? Or will she go the way of the dinosaur? What I like about T. A. Pratt--who is also known as Tim Pratt, by the way--is that he's not afraid to push the boundaries. I'll be honest in saying that I am not terribly familiar with urban fantasy, at least not in this very modernized vein, but there's something to be said about Pratt's ability to take what would seem outlandish and absolutely insane to us and make it seem normal or, at the very least, less shocking. In some ways I think this is both a compliment and a complaint. Certain things that happen within Blood Engines are alarming; it is a highly sexualized book, for example, and takes sex to a different level, although without the overly described vulgarity of certain urban fantasy authors (who shall remain nameless). In some ways the inclusion of such sexual content into normalcy is a good thing, because it can reduce the shock value; in other ways it can hurt the overall story by making things that would otherwise have a purpose as shock value be somewhat needless. Pratt, thankfully, doesn't overload on the sexual content and I only found one particular scene to be somewhat gratuitous, though not so gratuitous as to make me uninterested in finishing the book. (Generally I'm against content for shock value, by the way, although sometimes it does have a purpose). Blood Engines is an intriguing book. It successfully creates an entire underground world in San Francisco filled with sorcerers and magical beings, although not in the fanciful and rather flashy fashion of Harry Potter, but more along the lines of what you'd expect from a Philip K. Dick urban fantasy novel, if PKD would ever have written such a thing. Pratt, interestingly enough, has created different kinds of sorcerers, each with specific focuses and leanings. For example, there are sorcerers who have an affinity with the dead (ghosts, particularly, and souls), which allows them to raise the dead and use them for their own purposes, and sorcerers who are connected with technology, allowing them to manipulate seemingly advanced objects into a lot of really mean stuff--imagine a magically enhanced electronic alarm system. Each is woven into the underground, highly urbanized feel of Pratt's magical portrayal of San Francisco. It's as if this underground culture could very well exist (and wouldn't it be interesting if it did?). I share one complaint with SQT that seems rather prevalent within urban fantasy, although more so on the paranormal side (vampires, werewolves, etc.): sarcasm is getting somewhat unruly. Marla fits into this mold, although, to her credit (and Pratt's), she doesn't become annoying (I noticed it while reading, but it wasn't something that made me want to drop the book); my complaint is mostly focused on a lack of diversity and perhaps my desire to see a more rounded Marla than I think was presented. The story and the weirdness of Blood Engines, however, kept me going and this is probably the most important aspect of any novel. No matter how funny you might think your characters are, if the story surrounding them isn't enough to keep the reader interest, then it's a failure. Blood Engines is, thankfully, interesting, though not without flaws. I enjoyed Blood Engines and I was always curious to see what Pratt would do next to make his vision of San Francisco more gritty, weird, or downright insane. I will be honest, though, in saying that urban fantasy is not my forte. While Pratt's novel was entertaining and a relatively quick read, I think my general low interest in the subgenre prevented me from enjoying it further. If you're an urban fantasy nut, I suspect you'll love this book as much as I love a good space opera. Pratt is a decent prose stylist, fitting into a popular fiction mode quite easily, and I will likely look at some of his other work before continuing with the Marla Mason books (Poison Sleep, Dark Reign, and Spell Games). This isn't to say I didn't like Blood Engines or Pratt's work within Marla Mason's world, I simply want to test the waters and see what Pratt is all about. And I think I may do that by looking at Little Gods, which has one of the most beautiful pieces of cover art I've seen in the last few years. If you're interested in checking out Blood Engines for yourself, you can find it here on Amazon or here on Random House/Bantam.

7 comments:

daydream said...

As the resident urban fantasy nut on the blog, I would have to say that this is a title that will curl my skin in delight. Starting from the title and going down to the detailed review I say that this is a great title in the genre and I do have to agree on one thing when it comes to it: "Please oh, please no more sarcastic puns". As a writer in the genre I try to avoid that to the best of my ability.

SQT said...

I have this one. Occasionally I do go through the paranormal phase. Usually Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris or Rob Thurman are my urban fantasy go-to author but it's good to have others to read. I think this is a good one as far as the genre goes. I do get so tired of the overuse of sarcasm, but what I read of this one (haven't finished yet-- mood thing) I don't think it's nearly as bad as some. I think Lilith Saintcrow overdoes the sarcasm, as does Jennifer Rardin (couldn't finish hers). Overall, I think T.A. Pratt is probably pretty decent if you like that type of fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

I wonder if he's writing under "T. A." because he knows the main market for urban fantasy is women readers.

SciFiGuy said...

T.A. Pratt's urban fantasy definitely has it's own unique flavour in the genre which is a good thing. It is interesting to see the observations of a non-reader of the sub-genre. I am somewhat puzzled by Charles' comment about Tim writing as "T.A.". There is no doubt the majority of UF readers are women but I can't quite make the connection to what the gender of the author has to do with the readership. There are an increasing number of men writing in the genre and UF popularity as a genre is growing exponentially. Frankly I believe it has the potential to eclipse SF in marketshare in the next few years.

SQT said...

SciFiGuy

I get Charles' comment. I've known authors in the past who try to keep their gender anonymous based on the genre in which they're published. I think urban fantasy did start as more of a woman's genre since it's not unusual to have a romance angle and the majority of protagonists have usually been female. A lot more men have been stepping into the genre as writers and been really frank about simply liking the books. But I think it spent a few years being linked to the romance angle and it's no secret that men usually use pseudonyms when writing romance. Paranormal books have been steadily making their own mark and I think the preconceptions are changing. But obviously some still linger.

Virginia Lady said...

I'm an urban fantasy nut as well, but I hadn't seen this one yet. Now I've got to get it. Thanks for the heads up. I have to be in the right mood to deal with the over-the-top sarcasm that can be found with some writers, but then I'm easy when it comes to that genre. I'll take what I can get.

S.M.D. said...

I should note that if I didn't indicate it in the review, Pratt doesn't go over the top with the sarcasm. There just is noticeable sarcasm as part of who Marla is. The book isn't ruined by it, though.

Also, if I recall correctly from several podcast interviews I've heard, the move to use T. A. Pratt instead of Tim was a PR thing because of the enormous body of women who read urban fantasy. It's a trick, in a way, on female readers who may shy away from male authors in the genre. The same thing happens heavily in the romance genre, and in the opposite direction for women in science fiction (and to a lesser extent, fantasy). It's not as popular as it was back in the day (James Tiptree, Jr., for example, was a woman who made a decent career out of her male name), but it's still around.