First, let me mention that it turns out that James A Burton is really James A Hetley, with another half dozen or so books to his credit. THE SUMMER COUNTRY is on sale now and on the strength of POWERS, I picked it and its sequel up without even bothering to read the descriptions. Also another story called GHOST POINT, because I did read the description of that one and it sounded promising. There are others, too, so we’ll see after I have a chance to try these.
Also, I also see that a sequel to POWERS, DOMINIONS, came out last year, so I picked that up as well, of course, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading it.
The air hummed, oily golden liquid condensed out of sparkling haze, and a demon took human shape across the table from Albert Johannson. The thing stood at an angle to the world until it put one glowing hand on the scarred Formica tabletop and twisted to vertical without apparent movement, as if concepts of up and down were optional and it had to locate itself in space.
I had collected a reasonable number of samples over the past year, and yesterday was my day to read through a bunch of them, deleting as I went, until I reached one I couldn’t put down. POWERS was that one. Initially, it was the writing that grabbed me. I love the passage above. Description, it turns out, is a major strength for Burton. Not the only strength. Characterization and pov were handled in an unusual manner in this story, which was told almost as a stream of consciousness from Albert’s viewpoint, even though the story is told in third-person:
Feel the iron, smell the iron, hot in the coals. Read the temperature by eye. No welding here, no blazing white sparks flying from each strike of hammer on hot metal. Uniform red heat, a human would just see it as a glow, he saw something more – he saw iron willing to change in certain ways. Tongs came to his hand as if he’d called them, gripping, setting the glowing cane shaft between the jaws of the swage, tapping rather than pounding, matching rounded grooves along both sides of the shaft, up the length and then down again, to taper out a couple of inches from each end, up and back, widening, deepening, then back into the fire, judge the glow, up and down the shaft again, smoothing, fire again, swage again. Turn a quarter in his tongs, a second set of grooves, four total as he saw the finished work in his head.
Albert is plainly a smith, and not any ordinary smith, either. He is not exactly human. Who and what he is, is a mystery, especially to himself. His memories go back a long, long way, but they are as filled with holes as lacework. We find out why that is as the story goes on.
At first this novel looks like it might be an Urban Fantasy. It’s set in a gritty modern city and the important secondary character is a cop. Well, among other things, she is a cop. But actually this is not UF. It belongs, more or less, to the sub-sub-genre of mythological fantasy. I don’t like gods, Albert thinks on more than one occasion, but as he discovers, he is a god himself. If I tell you that he’s lame and a superlative smith, I bet you can figure out which god he is – which is more than he can; he never does recover much of his memory, not during the course of this book.
But this is not a story that restricts itself to one pantheon. The important secondary character is Mel el-Hajj, who is also a goddess, and knows it, though she, too, has dwindled over the centuries. She’s a Middle Eastern goddess of the winds, also associated somehow with Kali. There are strong implications that gods in this world might not confine themselves to neat categories and that very different myths might have grown up around various gods.
Anyway, whoever she exactly is or used to be, Mel is definitely prickly and dangerous. The first words she speaks to Albert are: Now what in the name of Allah’s eight million afreets are you? And then a moment later, If Allah so wills, I’ll drink your blood. … I don’t need some soft-hearted law of the infidel dogs for vengeance.
So, the writing is excellent, if in an unusual style; and the characterization is also unusual and very good. There are essentially only two characters – other secondary characters are much less important, although of course they can be important for driving the plot, and they are drawn effectively in their few lines. I loved the tight focus on just a couple important characters. That intimate focus normally works better for me than a huge cast. I mean, I like epic fantasy, but the stories I actually fall in love with are generally smaller scale, like this one.
Also, you know how from time to time one sees comments about loving unlikeable female characters – well, if that’s you, here you go. Mel is probably my favorite “unlikeable” female character since Tremaine in Martha Wells’ Ile-Rien trilogy. Though the stories are very different, Mel’s got the ruthless competence in spades, plus the loyalty to her own people. We do have a romance here, but it is very (very) slow to develop and I found the progression of the relationship believable.
The pacing of this story could seem slow, I guess, as Burton paints the world(s) for the reader. In fact, checking out the reviews on Goodreads, I see various readers have found it slow. I enjoyed the pace, leisurely as it was at times, because I enjoyed the characters and the setting and the description. Given all that, I don’t mind a bit if the pacing is slow.
Thankfully, the setting is not all gritty and poor, because with an unpleasant setting, description is a two-edged sword. But in addition to the urban slums where the story begins, we also get another world, almost all wilderness, and also the peculiar place between the worlds. The description throughout is dreamlike, or occasionally nightmarish. The most beautiful description is probably of the smithing, or maybe of the immense subtly landscaped territory in the other world.
The plotting is intelligent, even elegant, in how it arises directly out of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations. We don’t understand everything at the end, because this is such a close third-person narrative and Albert doesn’t understand everything. But we understand the essentials, including why the protagonists chose to go on with their quest even after they understood that success as well as failure is going to carry substantial costs. The ending is satisfying and this book stands quite well on its own, even though a sequel is out.
Overall rating: Oh, no question, for me this is a five out of five. Maybe nine out of ten. This was a really promising book and a great new-to-me author to stumble across so early in the year; may POWERS be an omen for the rest of 2016!