When we first meet Ray Lily, he’s in unpleasant circumstances. He’s less than 48 hours out of prison, driving a junker van through a Seattle rainstorm, and serving as chauffer to a boss who a.) is a powerful sorcerer, b.) wants to see him dead at the first possible opportunity, and c.) is paying him a wage of zero dollars per hour. Ten minutes after we meet him, he’s watched a boy die in front of his parents by exploding into sorcerous flame and melting into a swarm of silver worms. And then he’s watched the boy’s parents immediately forget they ever had a son, and drive away only vaguely confused.
It only goes downhill from there.
Child of Fire is a dark book. Sometimes shockingly, disturbingly dark, as is apparent right from the opening. That said, it’s also hugely entertaining, with noir-styled prose, a likeable narrator, and one of the most imaginative and horrifying monstrous adversaries I’ve ever encountered in fiction of any medium.
Our hero, Ray Lily, narrates the book in first person, and he bears comparison to hardboiled heroes like Philip Marlowe and Archie Goodwin, as well as the fantasy genre’s own Harry Dresden. He’s not quite as, well, heroic as Harry, though. He’s a criminal, recently out of a prison sentence that came at the tail end of a car-jacking career in L.A. county, and he still has a tendency to sort everyone he meets into two categories: victim and dominant.
But mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his childhood friend have pulled him into the shadowy world of the Twenty Palaces, a league of sorcerers formed to protect the secrets of magic from outsiders and to hunt down the supernatural entities known only as “predators.” These are hungry creatures from an extra-dimensional world called the Empty Spaces, who exist in a constant state of hunger. When summoned to our world, they can offer terrible power in return for a chance to sate that hunger on humans.
Connolly’s portrayal of the predators is quite fresh, partly because they can take almost any shape, and feed in more ways than simple eating. One is briefly described as being simply a gelatinous honeycomb that was so transparent it was nearly impossible to see… except when it flushed red with the human blood its summoner poured into it. Another is a hovering ball of electrical energy that leaves only charred bones in its wake.
Ray’s only contact in the Twenty Palaces society, and his only real source for information about the supernatural, is Annalise Powliss, a petite, five-foot woman in a fire-fighter’s jacket and combat boots. Her magic has given her incredible strength, the ability to heal from horrifying wounds by wolfing down raw meat, and a set of ribbons that work like magical hand grenades. She’s employing Ray as a combination of driver, hired gun, and man-servant — what she calls a “wooden man.”
The particular nature of the threat Ray and Annalise are investigating is probably the standout aspect of Child of Fire. The small town of Hammer Bay, situated on the Pacific coast in Washington state, has very few children, and no one can remember it ever having more. Parents with two or three children’s bedrooms and shelves full of picture books and stuffed animals think they’ve always been childless, and when anyone tries to remind them of their missing children, they react only with a vague discomfort and sense of confusion.
Annalise believes that Justin Hammer, children’s toy magnate and Hammer Bay’s first citizen, has something to do with the missing kids, and her go-to tactic is to break down his door and then break off his head. But when Hammer turns out to be more resilient than expected and Annalise is badly injured, it’s down to Ray to beat pavement and punch jaws until he’s unraveled the dark mysteries of Hammer Bay.
Connolly does a good job in this book of portraying the relationship between Ray and Annalise as quite tense. Almost everything that comes out of her mouth is a command, and in their first handful of encounters with the supernatural, she shows no concern for whether he lives or dies. In fact, because of a grievance going back to their first meeting, she’d rather see him dead. Their relationship takes a rather abrupt turn towards the chummy in subsequent books, but in Child of Fire, she’s barely Ray’s ally, much less his friend.
The book is a brisk read, with more or less constant action, discoveries, chases, and abductions. The town of Hammer Bay is a suitably creepy place, with residents who can flip from cordiality to hostility and back again in the same conversation. Ray himself, though he has a seedy past, is a likeable and ultimately heroic guy, who is convincing in both his reactions to the horrors he encounters and his genuine desire to reform himself.
The most common complaint I’ve seen about Child of Fire is that it’s rather sparse with the background it provides to the reader. We know a good deal of what Ray knows about the magical world he’s been caught up in, but nothing more — and Ray knows very little. Thus, the Twenty Palaces society itself is almost a complete mystery, and we get almost no information about the exact nature of the predators, the way magic is learned, or the nature of spellbooks. Even the exact details of Ray’s past life and his introduction to Annalise are kept in reserve. I didn’t find this scarce information to be a problem for me; if anything, it helped fuel my interest. Readers who do want to start with more background might begin with the prequel novel, self-published by Connolly and available on the Amazon.com Kindle store.
Also, some readers — I imagine parents particularly — may be turned off by the book’s theme of disappearing children. Even I, with no kids of my own or any nieces and nephews (yet), was rather sickened by their fate. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say that the world of the Twenty Palaces is too dark for the story to end with families restored. Also, while the primary antagonist is strikingly original, the B-plot threat from Hammer Bay’s corrupt cops was far less interesting.
Harry Connolly should be a familiar name to loyal Black Gate readers, and if you haven’t ever turned up a copy of Child of Fire, I highly recommend that you do so. It’s an electrifying trip for the modest price of a paperback.