Okay, I didn’t realize I was in the mood for a police procedural set in one of the snazziest fantasy settings ever, but turns out I was, so I’m glad the author sent me a review copy of this book.
So first, let me place Adventures in the fantasy genre: it is indeed very much a police procedural murder mystery and a buddy-cop story. It stands alone, pretty much, but it’s got BIG hooks for a sequel, perhaps unsurprisingly, as police procedurals are by their nature suited to a series format.
The protagonist is Rocío. Despite the title, Rocío is the only pov protagonist. She’s forty-something, established in her career, a detective with the Miraflores Community Justice Center in the city of La Beneficia de nuestros vecinos y los seres celestiales (generally referred to as La Bene).
The worldbuilding: Here I want to pause and tell you a lot about the worldbuilding, which is way up there for baroque, fun, complicated, delightful, non-European settings. Morgan handled this setting in the way I like best, layering in a million details that build up the world and give it a sense of deep history without ever pausing to explain the history or geography or much of anything; the reader picks up the most important elements as they go along. I loved it, seriously, but I have to add, for almost the only time in my entire reading life, I wouldn’t have minded pausing for an extended history lesson. Not up front, I maintain my utter dislike of prologue-as-history-textbook, but if someone had paused about eight chapters into the action to say, “So, as you know, Rocío, a thousand years ago the Ya Empire stretched from point A to point B – here is a map to jog your memory – and then the Ka Empire yada yada yada,” I would not actually have objected to that. To put it more seriously, this is a story that would benefit from either a) a glossary in the back, with extensive historical notes; or b) a link to a website where the author details the history of the world, plus maps.
This is one story where I’m pretty darn sure the author must have a World Bible sitting around somewhere. It’d be great to get a peek at that, is what I’m saying.
So, the city of La Bene is a port city in South America somewhere. Someone more familiar with South American geography might have a better idea where exactly the city is placed, but the city is plainly a crossroads for many and varied cultures and cultural traditions. Technology is shifting from gaslamp toward industrial, with horse-drawn trolleys plus a very few alarming-sounding automobiles. The weather, climate, food, plants, and animals are all drawn so as to give a clear sense of place – I’m pretty sure this is the first fantasy novel I’ve ever read where a coati makes a brief appearance. Also, there are a few dogs that appear briefly, including Papillons, which of course made me happy. Let me pause and add a picture of my first dog here, just because:
So, pulling myself away from thoughts of how delightful Papillons are, the actual take-home message here is: it’s hard to express how much I loved the details of the worldbuilding. The author cleverly layers tons of delightful details into witty dialogue, like this:
“Ugh. Do you have something for me?” [Rocío asks a forensic tech.]
“Not yet. Hala gave me the dust she found in Aleksandr Prokofiev’s room. I’m running five simultaneous tests: the omni-essence test, the copper test, the hocus pocus test—”
“Yaco, stop. I only know what the hocus pocus test is, and that’s because it’s not its real name.”
“Oh, right. It’s the Bernabé-Caswallawn-Fumagalli-Quiroga test.”
Who wouldn’t love that? The hocus pocus test, like all the other forensic tests, is a test for magical essence or something, because yes, all kinds of magic is layered into this setting. In this world, magic is powerfully influenced by geography, a bit like magic in the Griffin Mage trilogy. Ghosts and talking to dead ancestors here, electrical magic there, making nasty little fae-mosquitos somewhere else …
So, I could spend all day pulling out one delightful worldbuilding detail after another, but hopefully the above is enough to give you all the idea. How about other aspects of the story?
The characters: Rocío is from a posh family, rejected their expectations, got involved in the theater, and is now a detective. Hala, her partner, is a bit Holmesian, with a tendency to pull subtle details about crime scenes out of thin air and random useful objects out of her pockets. Their direct boss is competent, their ultimate superior a complete idiot, the young woman they are training earnest and well-intentioned, and so on.
I would say that most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, drawn in with broad strokes. This may be something of an asset in a story where the world is so complex and unfamiliar. Simple characters give the reader a resting place when otherwise the story might seem overly opaque and hard to get into.
Rocío has been given layers, but even here these are simple layers. For example, her relationship with her family, especially her mother, is toxic. I imagine the author plans to sort out this subplot in a later book, which is fine, but because Rocío has very little self-understanding in this regard, she sometimes reads more like she is in her twenties rather than her forties. In fact, there are several reasons that Rocío reads more like a younger woman than a mature woman, but that’s a big one.
The plot: This is fundamentally a simple mystery. This too makes the story easy to get into and follow, regardless of the unfamiliar details of the world. Plot twists do not come from the actual plot. When the bad guy is revealed, I more than half expected that to be a red herring, but nope, that’s the bad guy. In this story, plot twists arise not from the murder mystery elements, but from the worldbuilding elements; eg, magic can get pretty powerful and pretty scary.
Who would like this book: Well, that’s a complicated question, because there aren’t a whole lot of books that seem all that similar to this one, even though there are tons of books that share one or another important element. Let me see. All right:
If you like Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen novels, you should take a look at this one. That is the single series that strikes me as most similar, even though of course every single detail is different. Williams has a more elegant overall writing style, while Morgan offers a much (much) faster pace.
If worldbuilding is something you particularly like, then this story makes me think of Andrea K Höst’s Pyramids of London and Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy. Like those, Adventures is wonderfully baroque and offers a sense of deep history behind a complicated world that may share limited details with our world, but takes those details off in a very, very different direction.
Overall: I haven’t been reading all that many new-to-me books lately. I’ve been more re-reading this whole year, and mostly focusing on low-tension novels when I do read something new. When I’ve tried to start something new, especially SFF, often I haven’t been able to get into the story. If I do an end-of-the-year retrospective post about my favorite books I’ve read this year, it’ll be a short post.
Adventures hooked my interest with the delightful worldbuilding and then got me engaged with the fast-paced story and the likeable characters. Also, this story is in fact fairly low tension. In a mystery or a police procedural, we expect the bad guy to be caught and justice to prevail and that’s certainly what I expected here. I don’t want to spoil things, but I was also pretty certain that various important plot elements would work out well at the end, and they do.
As you can tell, I liked Adventures a lot. I’m not sure when it’s actually due to come out — spring 2021 sometime — but if police procedural fantasy and/or great worldbuilding is something you like, you should certainly keep an eye out for it.