My sister-in-law Karen raved about this book and then gave it to me for Christmas. And holy cow. I. LOVED. IT.
And before I even get into the story I have to say that a major reason why I loved it is because of the reader–Bronson Pinchot. Yes, Balki from Perfect Strangers. Yes, that goofy “foreigner” from the show has an utterly mesmerizing speaking voice. It is amazingly deep–when he first started speaking the menacing drawl of Jake Sullivan, I was blown away. And then he pulled out a couple dozen more characters, women and men–German, Japanese, Okies, military men, New Yorkers. He brought this story to absolutely real life.
I have made a point of looking for anything else that he reads (although I see that he mostly reads books about war (which is not my thing))–but I see a Flannery O’Connor in there and–YES–he reads book two of the Grimnoir series (called Spellbound) and it’s already out!
Okay enough about Pinchot. No, not enough. He was stellar!
Okay, now enough. What’s the story about? Well, the best thing is that the story itself is also amazing. It is set in the 1930s, in an alternate reality Untied States. And in this reality, random people have been gifted with magic. And there’s all kinds of magic–fades (people who can walk through walls); torches (people who can make and stop fires), mouths (people who can put thoughts in your head); brutes (people who are crazy strong and who can actually bend gravity to their will) and movers (people who can jump from place to place). There’s also healers and cursers and cogs–really smart people–and other with more mysterious powers.
Each chapter opens with a quote from a real (in our world) person talking about how the magic or the people with magic–the Actives–impacted society. So Einstein was a cog, and military leaders used brutes to fight in wars, etc.
There are various factions when it comes to the Actives. There are humans who want to eradicate them. There are Actives who believe they are the superior race and wish to abolish humanity. And there are Actives who want to work with humans but also keep the Actives from being harmed. This last group has a secret organization called Grimnoir.
When the story first opens, we meet Faye, a traveler. She is an Okie, stuck in the great dustbowl with her family who shuns her because she has magic (and creepy gray eyes). When her family gets to a cow farm in California, the Portuguese farmer sees something in Faye’s eyes and buys her for $10. He too is a traveler, and he wants to keep Faye safe. Faye proves to be a very hard worker and becomes as strong as any of her “brothers.” When we next see her she is a part of the family and calls the older man grandpa. She is also learning how to travel (is he travels and something else is there when she reappears, she will be melded with the item).
There’s also Jake Sullivan, a brute, who was sent to prison. He has been let out on good behavior but under the condition that he work for J Edgar Hoover, capturing magic-filled villains. He has qualms about this but mostly he just wants to get out from under the Feds and get back to his life. Jake is told that his last case will involve capturing Delilah, a beautiful woman who, despite her petite size, can lift and throw a car. Jake knows Delilah and can’t believe that she has been accused of murder. But he has no reason to doubt the evidence he’s been given. So he and the Feds hunt her down.
While all this is going on, we meet another man, Mr Stuyvesant, the richest man in the world. He has but one desire: revenge. He wants a curse put on a man… a curse that will make this man die. Very slowly and very painfully. He tracks down a Pale Horse, a sort of inverse healer, who can touch a person and curse them from a far. The White Horse agrees, and his only price is a favor down the road. This gives Stuyvesant pause, but he agrees. At this point we don’t know much about Stuyvesant or the Pale Horse or the man that he wants killed, so it’s pretty hard to know who to root for. Stuyvesant is kind of an ass (and a major germophobe) so we kind of don’t like him, but the other guy must have done something really bad.
The story lines merge and dovetail in various ways. We learn how Jake knew Delilah, we see Faye and Jake meet, and we see how Stuyvesant fits onto all of this (both because of the man he cursed and because of his own grandson).
But I haven’t even gotten to the actual plot yet. There is an Emperor of Japan who is like a super master ninja. He is in tune with the magical forces in the universe and he is more or less invincible. He intends to unleash the most dangerous weapon invented (by Nikolai Tesla)–if he can find it. The Grimnoir have scattered it around the globe, but the Emperor is closing in. And his most impressive soldiers–the Iron Guard–are on hand to help. And the top Iron Guard happens to be Jake Sullivan’s older brother. We learn how the older Sullivan became a traitor to the United States (he once served in the military and how he, a white man, became so powerful in the Japanese world).
There’s a whole cast of supporting characters as well, and each one is given a decent back story as well as motivation for their actions. (The story of the German Fade was particularly harrowing). Correia makes them all three-dimensional and Pinchot brings them to life.
There is a staggering amount of violence–some of it brutal, some of it comical. There is a lot of fighting. There’s an old pirate on a deserted island. One of the good guys gets captured, one of the good guys is killed. Some of the bad guys turn out to be good guys. And some of the bad guys are actually made sympathetic, even though you want to see them destroyed. There’s some great storytelling going on here.
I love a story in which a) you don’t even know which side is the good side (for a little while anyway) b) the odds are impossible and c) the loose ends get tied in ways that blow your mind. And this story had it all. And perhaps most amusingly, it is told in a noir detective style (chock full of clichés) that give the story a wonderfully retro feel while we’re talking about super futuristic magic rays and such.
Oh, and everyone rides around in blimps and dirigibles (the transportation of choice in alternate reality).
It was freakin awesome!
One thing that I especially liked–and I don’t know if this was Pinchot’s reading or if Correia wrote it this way (I mean, I know he wrote it that way, but was it Pinchot’s choice to emphasize it)–was the way the narrator–third person omniscient–occasionally used the voice of the characters that he was talking about. So, when he is talking about Faye, he would describe things as if Faye were relating them–in Faye’s voice. We would hear Faye’s voice even though we knew it wasn’t her talking (close third person, we call that)–and it works like a charm, because it takes some of the harshness out of the violence that Faye must inflict. And when it’s used on Sullivan it adds a dose of “I just want to get back to my life” during some of the more intense action sequences.
I wasn’t sold by the first few minutes of the story–I wasn’t sure what to make of the “cow-herding Portugee,” but once the elements began to emerge and the cast began to develop I was hooked. I even found myself driving around a little more than usual to keep listening.
In summary, I don’t read noir, I don’t read detective/crime fighter novels. I like fantasy but I don’t read much of it and I never read military/police stories. But the combination of all of those elements along with magic and alternate reality made this an utterly stunning book. I simply cannot wait to get book two. Can not wait.