I have a weakness for urban fantasy but it is so seldom that I find a book that does justice to the genre. Lately most books are populated with go-grrrrrl heroines that spend more time getting into trouble than actually solving the mystery that is at the heart of the story. But I keep trying new authors and every once in a while I'm rewarded with a book that makes the search worthwhile.
Magic uses blood—a lot of it. The more that’s used, the more powerful the effect, so mages find “volunteers” to fuel their spells. Lem, however, is different. Long ago he set up a rule that lets him sleep at night: never use anyone’s blood but your own. He’s grifting through life as a Trickster, performing only small Glamours like turning one-dollar bills into twenties. He and his sidekick, Mags, aren’t doing well, but they’re getting by.
That is, until they find young Claire Mannice— bound and gagged, imprisoned in a car’s trunk, and covered with invisible rune tattoos. Lem turns to his estranged mentor for help, but what they’ve uncovered is more terrifying than anybody could have imagined. Mika Renar, the most dangerous Archmage in the world, is preparing to use an ocean of blood to cast her dreams into reality— and Lem just got in her way.
Magic powered by blood is nothing new in fantasy fiction but what Jeff Somers does in Trickster isn't all about the magic. Somers' story has more to do with the attitudes of people who have power that the average person doesn't and the ease with which they will use their unfair advantages. An oft-repeated phrase in "Trickster" is we are not good people and it perfectly sums up the personalities of the main characters.
Lem and Mags are grifters who use Lem's talent for magic to run small cons. Lem could be a much more successful mage but past experience with drawing power from the blood of other people has made him wary of abusing his power- many of his kind do. Unfortunately Lem doesn't have any other ideas on how to make a living and he and Mags barely survive on the petty scams that Lem's blood can power.
When Lem and Mags find themselves in the wrong place and come to the attention of the very powerful Mika Renar, their initial intentions are to stay out of the way even though they know what she is doing is wrong- Lem can't compete with a mage who is willing and able to bleed as many people as she needs to suit her wishes. But Lem is torn by a powerful attraction to Claire Mannice, a young woman Renar plans to kill in a bid for immortality, and when Lem finds out the ultimate cost to Renar's plan, he has no choice but to try to stop her. But, make no mistake, Lem isn't a hero who opposes Renar out of any sense of nobility- it really comes down to self-preservation.
The thing I like most about Somers' style of urban fantasy is that the story is propelled by purposeful action. My biggest gripe about paranormal fiction, as anyone who reads this blog knows, is the way many writers have the characters running headlong into blatantly dumb situations to move the story forward-- logic be dammed. Lem might find himself in some frightening circumstances but he doesn't go out of his way to put himself in harm's way. There is a certain predictability to the evolution of Lem's character but it never feels forced and the story has a natural feeling to the way it unfolds.
The character building is also good- though I might have wished for more background on most of the characters. Lem is the only one with a history that is fairly fleshed out. Mags is a complete mystery. Mags is the loyal but not-too-bright companion to Lem who mostly comes across as a puppy dog who talks-- I suspect there's quite a bit of backstory here that will appear in later books. Claire's main characteristic is her fearlessness: she goes down fighting no matter what. Mika Renar is also somewhat one-dimensional in that we only know that there is nothing she won't do to suit her own ends.
Somers' has a crisp writing style that is well suited to urban fantasy and, while some detail could be added to the story, I much prefer his clean kind of storytelling over the common pitfalls of info-dumps and overly-cute dialog. "Trickster" is a good, solid beginning to a series that I expect will only get better with each book.
4 out of 5 stars