The Palace Job
I love heists. I can't really explain why. It probably has something to do with the planning involved in the exploit, and the large cast of colorful characters, and the delicious twists within twists. Honestly, I have a hard time defining their magic, since one of the most ubiquitous aspects of heist stories--namely, that you can't actually think about the sequence of events without realizing that the whole thing is a haphazard heap of Refrigerator Logic tenuously upheld by unrealistic events--goes against all of my normal book instincts. The Palace Job has all of the lighthearted fun--and failures--of a heist story, all told within the framework of an entertaining fantasy world.
Speaking of the worldbuilding, Weeks was clearly hugely inspired by Discworld. The magic of Weekes' world tend to humorously reference our world, such as magical locks whose dependence upon "two very large prime numbers" means that they can't be broken without stealing the "encryption crystals." The plot, two is reminiscent of Pratchett, particularly Men At Arms. Put it this way: one of the characters is an honest ingenue orphan boy with a mysterious birthmark and a food item name. (Gee, I wonder what will end up happening to him?) There's also a character named Icy Fist, short for Indomitable Courteous Fist, which isn't remotely like Constable Visit-The-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets. The dialogue, too, occasionally reminded me of a Discworld book--and I consider that a high compliment. A few of my favourites:
"Fortune favors the bold, though statistics favor the cautious."
"I like my kahva the way I like my women… hot and black."
"I like my kahva the way I like my men," she replied, her eyes half-lidded. "Ground up into tiny pieces and stored in a bag."
However, there's one pretty big distinction between Pratchett and Weekes: Pratchett's books function on multiple levels, and shine brightest as satire. While Weekes involves quite a few references to our world--don't get me started on the politics--I don't think it's actually satire. For one thing, there isn't really a driving point. For another, there's my main complaint of the book: its handling of race. Superficially, it seems to work: two of the protagonists are part Urujar, subject to prejudice and stereotyping because of their skin color. The book tries hard to explore prejudice through the guise of the Urujar. However, to me, the oversimplification of racial issues in the world is a truly egregious problem. For one thing, I'm sick of fantasy authors having a dark-skinned slave race. It suggests that dominance by whites and prejudice by race are so inevitable that they're effectively universal. It's also incredibly myopic, considering that throughout history, cultures such as Rome and Egypt managed both slavery and prejudice without tying it directly to race. Worse still, in Weekes' world, the terms "Urujar" and "black" are used synonymously, both by outsiders and by the Urujar themselves. Given how closely Weekes appears to be trying to mirror our world--his characters talk about "being able to pass for white" and "hair that had the tight Urujar curls"--I find having an entire culture coded only by skin colour to be extremely offensive. In our world, part of the offensiveness of racial stereotyping is the way that a rich multiplicity of cultures and backgrounds are flattened into a single stereotyped list of ill-considered biases. Trying to play around with prejudice while actually utilizing that type of prejudice leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Authors, if you decide to try to explore racism in your books, can you either move it farther from home or grant it its due complexity?
And while the plot was a lot of fun, it seemed to have difficulty deciding whether or not it wanted to go for suspense or comedy. Most of the book reads like a spoof, but Weekes uses the "character-appears-to-die" cliffhanger at least five times. It's the type of thing that I believe should be used at most once. Also, despite the half-female cast, the book comes perilously close to failing the Bechdel test, not because the women don't talk to one another, but because their conversations so rarely involve something other than the men. And I'm not even going to get started on the "Imperial" character who comes off as a clumsily-magic-ized version of a Jackie Chan movie. I really did enjoy reading this--it was just that I couldn't stop my mind from thinking about the book as an attempt as satire and analysing it accordingly. You'll definitely appreciate the book more if you just sit back and enjoy the comedy.
Overall, The Palace Job makes for a cute, lighthearted read. Like most heists, you can't think about the plot too closely, and in this case, a lot of the superficiality extends to the worldbuilding as well. However, if you're in the mood for a humorous heist, The Palace Job is worth a look.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, 47 North, in exchange for my honest review.~~