Series: THE USTARI CYCLE
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4-5; Sensuality—2; Humor—2-3
Publisher and Titles:
"Fixer" (Pocket Star, prequel e-novella, 3/2014)
Trickster (Pocket Books, 2/2013)
All the way through the book, the lead character constantly reminds us that "We are not good people." By "we," he means himself and his fellow magicians (aka mages, sorcerers), who use blood to fuel their casting of magic. The mages with the greatest power maintain their own crew of "bleeders," who "voluntarily" open a vein whenever their master needs to cast a spell. Those with less magical talent must rely on their own blood supply.
Magicians (aka Mages) exist outside the parameters of normal human society, and they have their own strictly ordered caste system. At the top are the enustari, arrogant Archmages with unbelievable power who use their talent to make life as comfortable as possible for themselves and their crew of "bleeders." Below the Archmages are the saganustari and the ustari, who have less power. At the very bottom of magical society are the idimustari, who are called "tricksters." Lower-level mages, like the tricksters and the ustari, can produce simple spells, but they have only a fraction of the power of the higher levels of mages. Tricksters and ustari are mostly grifters, performing Glamours, like changing $1 bills into $20s (just long enough to make a purchase and then a get-away) or Charms, like convincing a person to willingly hand over money or to contribute various goods or services. Here are a few favorite tricks of one ustari: "A blueberry muffin floated from behind a diner counter into his waiting hand when no one was looking. A newspaper box popped open without receiving any coins. Taxicabs paid off with blood-smeared dollar bills and told to keep the change without any sense of irony." (p. 47)
The series hero is Lem Vonnegan, a Trickster who lives on the edge of poverty and starvation most of the time. He and his sidekick, Pitr (Mags) Mageshkumar, live in New York City, where they spend their time running various cons just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads—and they're not even very good at that. Here is Lem's summary of their life: "We were f---ing incompetent. In all things, we'd failed. We were wallowing in a nice, comfy pit of f---ing spectacular failure, deep black and hermetically sealed, me and Mags bound together forever and ever with deep fishhooked ties of ruin." (p. 4)
Lem is one of the rare Tricksters who will only use his own blood. When he was an apprentice mage, his ustari mentor (Hiram Bosch) tried to force him to use "volunteer" Bleeders—usually prostitutes he picked up off the street—but Lem just couldn't do it. His refusal eventually led to his leaving Bosch and going out on the streets with Mags. Mags is an interesting character. He is a huge, burly man who is mentally challenged and who has imprinted on Lem like a baby duck. Lem takes care of Mags the best he can, and Mags rewards him with total loyalty. As Lem explains, "I adopted Mags, he fell in love with me, and we've been non-breeding life partners ever since." (p. 181)
Lem takes a very clear-eyed view of mage society. He tells the reader time and time again: "We were not good people." At one point, Lem explains that mages have "survived as a species because we were roaches. We stayed out of the light." (p. 86) Later, Lem muses about his life, "I had seven dollars in my pocket and a single suit of sweaty, crusty clothes. I had holes in my shoes. I had Pitr Mags. I'd never had a lease, or a mortgage. I'd never had a credit card or a bank account. I had a birth certificate, somewhere...but that was it. I'd stolen things. Money, mostly, conned out of Charmed people. Trinkets here and there when survival absolutely demanded it." (p. 232) Although Lem and Mags live a rough life, they also find dark humor in most of the situations they get themselves into, and they always look out for one another.
I can think of two other urban fantasy series that have some similarities (in tone and setting) to this one: Rob Thurman's CAL LEANDROS series with its Manhattan setting, close sibling relationship, and dark adventures (particularly in the early books); and Charlie Huston's JOE PITT CASEBOOKS series, also with a sketchy hero bluffing and battling his way through life in a bleak and hopeless New York City. Both of those series differ from this one in that they include a host of paranormal creatures. If you enjoy Trickster, you might also like Stephen Blackmoor's City of the Lost. Click on the pink links in this paragraph to read my reviews. (I reviewed the Huston's series in my book, Fang-tastic Fiction: Twenty-First Century Paranormal Reads).
PREQUEL NOVELLA: "The Fixer"
This short novella introduces the series hero (actually, anti-hero), Lem Vonnegan, and his sidekick, Mags. When their scheme to earn some money goes wrong, Lem can't repay a huge debt to Heller, a lowlife ustari who makes his living on the dark side of the law. In order to square himself with Heller, Lem agrees to be Heller's "Fixer" in a shipping deal that will be going down that night at the docks. Heller tells Lem, "I don't give a @#$% how you do it. All I know is my [stuff] gets to me on schedule, in full, with no problems. Anything happens to threaten that you fix it."
The first part of the story follows Lem and Mags as they attempt to work their scheme to get enough money to repay Heller, only to watch it go horribly wrong. The second part of the story takes them to the docks, where Lem discovers just what is in the containers that Heller is importing and decides that he has to step in and stop it. Even though Lem would prefer to go through with Heller's Fixer deal and make a clean sweep of the situation, he knows that Mags won't be able to live with it. "If it hadn't been for Mags and the spotlight of pure, unadulterated…goodness he beamed around like a…weapon, I'd have shepherded this steel box from point A to point B and gotten back to zero. Which was where my life was now, struggling to get back to zero."
In this novella, we get a good feel for the Lem-Mags relationship as Lem describes his growing attachment to the good-hearted but dim-witted Mags. At one point, Lem even stands up to Hiram, his master, refusing to be separated from his platonic friend. Lem admits to himself that if Mags left him—gave up on him, "then I wouldn't survive it. It would eat me alive, losing that pure faith and stupid affection…Mags, my last and only friend."
This is a nice introduction to the series, providing an in-depth look at the two leading characters and the dark world in which they live. Click HERE to read an excerpt.
The story follows Lem and Mags as they try to hide from Amir while trying to keep Claire safe. As they attempt to get themselves out of this potentially fatal situation, they enlist aid from various mage acquaintances, including the unwilling Bosch. The problem with asking for help, though, is that each and every mage is usually out for just himself, and none of them can really be trusted. When the police get involved, life gets even more hazardous for Lem and Mags.
As the plot plays out, Lem learns the horrific particulars of Renar's upcoming spell and is determined to stop her and save Claire. As Lem and Claire spend some time together, a mutual attraction begins to develop, but with no overt romantic actions.
This is a book with so many levels of complexity and depth that it's hard to know where to begin. First, this mage world is fresh and inventive—nothing like the usual urban fantasies on the market today. No stereotypical alpha hero. No one-dimensional villains. No lengthy, anguished interior monologues. Instead, we have a well-constructed magic system and a solid plot driven by scenes of compelling action and bitter despair. The tone is very, very grim and gritty, but the darkness is broken frequently by moments of noir humor that provide comic relief.
Even though they are low-life thieves and rip-off artists, Lem and Mags are great characters. Lem, in particular, struggles with his own moral code as he is forced to rethink his lifelong policy of using only his own blood to cast spells. He must decide quickly if his personal code of conduct is more important than saving the lives of others. Mags reminds me of Lenny in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men—both being strong, loyal, mentally challenged men with enduring fixations (i.e., Lenny dreams of soft and furry rabbits; Mags is addicted to showy magic tricks). Both Lem and Mags are survivors, and they continually protect one another as they stumble through their on-the-edge lives. Nobody in the series could be called a "good guy," but Lem is the best of the bad.
In Part II, Lem and Mags meet the Negotiator (aka Richard Harrows), a mage who is under a geas (compulsion) to negotiate with various people (including Lem). The Negotiator plays a particularly important role in Part IV. Part III takes the group to South America, where they find more pieces of the puzzle and begin to believe that they know what is going on and who is behind it. In Part IV, the whole truth is revealed, in all its messy, labyrinthine glory.
The plot of this sequel is extremely complex—sometimes convoluted—and it gets very woo-woo towards the end as Lem learns the identities of the true villains, tries to keep his friends alive, and attempts to survive. Unfortunately, Somers resorts to some deus ex machina tropes to keep the action going, and they seem to come out of nowhere. One of them is an actual magical machine: the kurre-nikas, which becomes the focus of Parts III and IV. In these final sections, new types of monsters pop into reality to attack the good guys, and some characters die, come back to life, and die again. Lem's memories of the past become unreliable, and his grasp of the present becomes tenuous. The final section—"Fabricator"—is where the whole thing completely fell apart for me. Trust me when I tell you that when Lem says that "We are not good people," the "We" in that sentence includes just about everyone in the book. Somers botches the building of suspense by throwing in far too many villains. Every time Lem thinks he has tracked down "the" villain, he discovers that there is another one waiting in the wings—each one worse than the last.
I truly enjoyed "Trickster/Part I" as well as Parts II and III, but by the time Part IV rolled around, I had nearly given up trying to figure out what was happening. In the early parts of the book, Lem—the narrator—gives the appearance of reliability, but as the story plods along, his narration becomes more and more unreliable and hallucinatory. Time lines bend, merge, and separate; memories become realities; realities become memories; and truth is relative, rather than absolute. If you revel in bewildering and circuitous dark fantasies, this might be the book for you.