This seems as good a time and place as any to say a word about the tragic fate of the Twenty Palaces series. The books gathered critical accolades, high Amazon.com rankings, and a blurb from the prince of urban fantasy, Jim Butcher himself. However, after the third novel in the series, Circle of Enemies, the series was cancelled by Del Rey due to underperforming sales. Harry Connolly had a fourth novel — a prequel exploring Ray Lily’s introduction to the bloody world of the Twenty Palaces society — already written. Rather than allowing it to be consigned to the bottom drawer of his dresser, the deepest recesses of his hard drive, or the bottom of the Hudson River, Connolly did the world a favor and produced it as a self-published e-book.
I’ll be writing reviews of the second and third volumes in the series (watch this space!); but for this week, I wanted to look at that prequel, Twenty Palaces, for three reasons. First, sales of this book will put more money in the author’s pocket than sales of remaining copies of the other books, and I’m a big enough Connolly fan to think his labors deserve it. Second, if you’d like to give the books a shot, but are too profoundly avaricious to lay down $7.99 for Child of Fire, you’ll be delighted to learn that Twenty Palaces is available on Kindle and Nook for the fantastically low price of $2.99, payable in one easy installment. Third, it’s a good book.
Twenty Palaces opens with Ray fresh out of a three-year stay in prison, coming to Seattle by bus to live with his Uncle Charlie and Aunt Theresa. They’re no Ben and May Parker — Charlie, a Seattle cop, is particularly hostile to his deadbeat nephew — but they’re the only people Ray has left, and his only real chance to reform himself and leave his days as a car thief and thug in his past.
There’s another familiar face there to welcome him back: John, his boyhood best friend. When they were kids, Ray found a gun hidden in John’s home, and accidentally fired it, putting John in a wheel-chair and ending their friendship. But John is out of his wheelchair now, in what the local media have crowned a miracle cure, and Ray has to fight his way through a barricade of news vans and television anchors just to make it to his door.
John holds no grudge. In fact, he’s eager to renew his childhood friendship with Ray. But he has new friends, now, and Ray immediately notices that all of them, John included, have a ravenous hunger that no amount of pizza and burgers seems to satisfy, combined with the strength to shatter a baseball against the bars of a batting cage. He begins to suspect that something is wrong with John’s new circle even before Annalise Powliss, peer of the Twenty Palaces society, arrives on the scene in a wave of sorcery and extracts a coiled monster from one of their skulls.
Ray successfully steals a spellbook from one of Annalise’s associates, and makes three photocopies before they’re able to recover it. That stolen spellbook becomes his only weapon in a race to save John from his own cure, before the Twenty Palaces sorcerers catch up to him and execute him. Matters become more complex when Ray realizes the full price John has paid to recover the use of his legs — a price which makes him a threat to all humanity.
Much of the joy and tension of Twenty Palaces comes from Ray’s status as an utter newcomer to the world of magic and monsters. He’s not particularly imaginative, probably isn’t the kind of guy who had a shelf full of Dragonlance novels as a kid, and so has no background to prepare him for a clash between sorcerers and monsters. His reactions are a convincing mix of horror and pragmatism. His reluctance to accept the grotesque reality about John’s condition is persuasive, and his guilt over John’s original injury is the fuel that drives his increasingly desperate quest to save his old friend.
For readers familiar with the other Twenty Palaces novels, it’s also a pleasure to see a couple other members of the society with their unique sets of spells. Connolly’s portrayal of magic — and the hints he drops about the larger supernatural world—are as exciting as ever. My favorite detail is that every spell inscribed in a Twenty Palaces spellbook consists simply of two abstract designs, one labeled “For the hand,” the other “For the mind.” We also get a battle between sorcerers every bit as exciting as the fight against Wally King in Circle of Enemies.
If I have one complaint, it’s that, at a critical juncture, Annalise is ludicrously quick to trust Ray, even to the point of taking his word over that of one of her peers on a matter of life-and-death. It’s uncharacteristic for Annalise, who normally seems to have nothing but cold contempt for Ray, and who has previously been on the verge of executing him outright. Her attitudes towards Ray seem to change as the plot requires them to. It’s a problem which I thought weakened both Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies, and it’s annoying here as well.
Despite that, Twenty Palaces is a great read. Ray isn’t a nice guy, but he’s trying to do the right thing, to correct the sins of his past by helping John. His struggles are thrilling and heart-breaking reading, right down to a climax that will force Ray to confront head-on the monster which has possessed his best friend.