The Alchemy of Chaos
by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Have you ever been vaguely discontented with a book until a sudden realization of where it fit in the genre scheme of things made it thoroughly enjoyable? No? Oh, well. For me, this was one of those books.
I first encountered Maresca through Murder of Mages, which is set in the same world and the same city but features different protagonists. I enjoyed Mages so much that I immediately picked up The Thorn of Dentonhill, the prequel to this book. The protagonist of both books is Veranix Calbert, a student at the local magic university who spends his leisure hours as his infamous alter-ego, the Thorn, hopping around rooftops in a magical mask and fighting drug dealers. While I still got a kick out of the worldbuilding, I had a far rockier relationship with Veranix and his crowd, mostly because Veranix struck me as just… too much. Super-powerful magic, fantastically accurate archery skills, incredible acrobatic talents, uber-rare and uber-powerful magical tools… my protagonist type leans towards the weak, flawed, tarnished knights of hardboiled mystery or vanilla-human protagonists stuck in a magical world rather than the hyper-talented Chosen Ones of epic fantasy, and Veranix is a bit much even for an epic fantasy protagonist. And then partway through this book, I finally got it: Veranix is a classic superhero. Yep, even with the whole secret-identity-and-mask bit, it took me a book and a half to catch on.
With my limited superhero genre knowledge culled from Wikipedia, Ars Technica articles, and a few episodes of Marvel and DC shows (yep, I'm one of those irritating folks who have never read the books/comics but feel that watching a few scattered episodes bestows the prerogative of making sweeping generalizations about the genre), I've decided Veranix is Daredevil: the secret identity as a mild-mannered student, the black mask shading his face, the superhuman parkour/acrobatic talents, the vigilantism, the tragic and notorious past, the insane risk-taking, the belief that he is solely responsible for protecting "his streets," the habit of getting horrific but quickly-forgotten injuries, the tendency to take on ten goons at once and still win, the arch-nemesis who is attempting to take over the city for nefarious purposes, and, of course, the incredible magical gifts that he utilizes pretty much solely to hit people… from the four or five episodes I've seen, it's all classic Daredevil.
As soon as I understood the genre the book was playing with, I could finally enjoy it. Dangerous secret identity? Check. Hyper-talented vigilante protagonist? Check. Enablist sidekicks? Check. Somewhat ridiculous revenge-obsessed villains? Check. Scantily-clad outfit-color-coded assassins with insane weaponry involving knife-edged hula hoops? Check. Suddenly, it all made sense.
So, superheroes. I love genre collisions, and a larger-than-life story that fulfills all the superhero tropes but is set in a semi-steampunk high fantasy world is actually surprisingly fun. Just as with Daredevil, I never really warmed to Veranix, partially because of his problem-solving style. As his friend puts it:
"Give him a test to study for and he freezes up. But if he can solve a problem by punching it in the face…"
I also wasn't thrilled with Kaiana, his love interest, since for much of the story, her most active role is to use her sexuality/"feminine wiles" to enable Veranix to actually take action. However, I liked the rest of his sidekicks, particularly the studious Delmin. Two more nerds get added to Veranix's support squad in this book, and both are quite fun. This book also adds a Javert-style constable, and I love Javert characters. Plus, there are quite a few callouts to the Constabulary series, including a cameo with Minox's siblings. At times, the hyperbolic superhero thing verged on too much for me; for example, in this book, the semi-cockney dialect has suddenly starts referring to all women as "birds," all so that a group called the Assassin Birds-- the aforementioned scantily-clad women, each with a bird species moniker and a distinctive and potentially ridiculous fighting method that may or may not involve hula hoops-- can show up to try to take out Veranix. The enjoyment is aided by the book's inability to take itself too seriously, even when things get drastic:
"People will get punched in the face."
"That is my favourite definition of that word."
Or take the discussion of what Veranix would do at a crucial life-and-death moment:
"You have numerous faults, Mister Calbert, but that sort of callous disregard is not one of them."
"I am quite capable of callous disregard, sir," Veranix said. "Just the other day--"
"The other day he used my towel and left it on the floor," Delmin offered.
So, if you're willing to not only suspend your disbelief but defenestrate it entirely, and you're in the mood for rooftop chases, flashy magical battles, occasional flashes reminiscent of DARE-to-keep-a-kid-off-drugs, suspenseful captures, gang wars, magical potions of mass destruction, and a lot of parkour, this series may be for you. As it turns, out superheroes and high fantasy can make for a pretty magical concoction.
~~I received an ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advance reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~