|Cover by John Coulthart|
Angry Robot, 6 February 2018
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley
This is a strange, mixed-up yet nevertheless joyful book. Set in a world going through something like 1920s-era US Prohibition, it strongly evokes the spirit of the Jazz Age: our heroine, Daisy Dell, is "the very picture of a Modern Girl - slender of frame; her short, tight curls coifed with a shiny pomade; heeled dance shoes dressing either foot; and her dark skin complemented by the contrast of daisy yellow, so vibrant as though it was part of her identity. This she supposed it was."
Daisy is making her way in Soot City, capital of Ashland, a nation recently resettled after centuries of volcanic eruptions - think Iceland, but with a gentler climate. The portrayal of Ashland, its social and political tensions, the hints at a wider world - many of the citizens have fled there to escape from vaguely described trouble elsewhere ("Mr Blaine's family fled to Ashland presumably to escape the fascist regime in Berngi"), most of all the morality campaign aimed at suppressing magic - for, reader, this is very much a fantasy world - are all done very well. And as we might expect, Dell pretty soon falls in with gangsters, dealers in the illegal substance mana ("the blue stuff") essential for magicians. From then on it gets a bit Bugsy Malone with shootouts, political shenaniganns, a ruthless hitwoman and romantic entanglements.
The plot is pretty linear and restricted - we're not dealing here with world changing conspiracies, Dark Lords or the fate of the Universe. Some may dislike that: for my part I found it rather refreshing, allowing time and space for Gower to develop her characters - she gives Dell, and her boss, Swarz, plenty of backstory (Daisy's eventually reveals a rather horrifying secret that counterbalances the less pleasant aspects of the speakeasy gang - no-one in this book has clean hands) and a nicely complicated relationship. It was a slight disappointment that the plot is pretty transparent, with the antagonist and their motivations identified to the reader (not to Dell) early on. To set against that, there is, as I have said, a satisfying atmosphere of moral murkiness to the book. The same phrase - "a girl's got to eat" - is used of both Dell and her Nemesis. Motivations here are mundane, about making rent or keeping food on the table or just having good time at the end of the week, not about fulfilling ancient prophecies or crusading against evil.
The book is also nicely observed. Early on, Swarz challenges Dell's motivations, wondering if she shouldn't spend a bit less money on partying and move into a better flat. Dell is having none of it and basically tells him to mind his own business. Gower also has a nice line in hard-boiled one-liners ("She had to admire his nonchalance in approaching someone... younger... drinking alone like she was contemplating revenge", "Daisy held forth the letter, putting on a smile she was too weary for"). The book is unashamedly progressive and pro-diversity, with, for example, a character who presents sometimes as male and sometimes as female ("Well, sure, when I am a man. I'm not now") and with the treatment of both the native ogres and the magicians a proxy for the results of ethnic and social privilege ("Magic, alongside ogre technology... had probably built half the city.")
Overall this was a great read. the world building is second to none, the characters plausible, and if there's a bit less plot then I might ideally have liked, that also has its attractions and Gower never, never lets the pace of events slacken with several viscerally realised set-piece battles before the end.
A great debut, and I hope that Gower writes more about this intriguing world soon and especially about Daisy Dell. (Also, just take a moment to appreciate that gorgeous, glamorous cover!)