An Import of Intrigue
by Marshall Maresca
To say I enjoyed the first book in this series, A Murder of Mages, is an almost criminal understatement. As soon as I finished the book, I (a) went out and purchased the only other novel by Maresca I could get my hands on, and (b) reread the book. Given this highly atypical behavior on my part--I almost never buy books-- you can imagine my excitement when I received an arc of the sequel, An Import of Intrigue.
It's a bit hard to explain why these books work so well for me. Part of it is the genre: I absolutely adore detective novels crossed with speculative fiction, and police procedurals in this vein are particularly fun. I also have a deep fondness for urban-fantasy themes in high-fantasy worlds, and I thoroughly enjoyed Maresca's blend of clockpunk and steampunk. Last but not least, there were the characters: Satrine, the wife of an injured cop and a mother of two, with a history in spycraft and a goal of tricking her way into a decent-paying job, made for a highly sympathetic female protagonist. And then there is Minox, a member of a multigenerational clan of coppers with the not-so-secret disability of uncontrolled magic. I particularly liked Minox, who came across to me as fitting somewhere on the spectrum. In Import, we get to see a new side of the city: its foreign quarter. A mysterious murder has taken place that seems to involve every major foreign group in the city, and Satrine and Minox are taxed with finding the guilty party, hopefully without starting too many riots.
Given my feelings about the first book, you can imagine how much it breaks my heart to say it, but An Import of Intrigue really didn't work for me. I've always had some issues with the way that Maresca approaches race in his book, and this story merely exacerbates my issues. The Druth, who seem to me to be a vaguely British/European-based culture, create a white default, and all of the "exotic" foreign cultures the book deal with are varying shades of brown (and, in one case, grey). By the time we're in a fantasy world, why do authors insist upon basing so much upon skincolor? Why do they not understand the massive cultural baggage involved in having a character, say, go in blackface? Worse still, the imaginary cultures are clearly stereotyped shills for real-life cultures. The Kierans, for example, with their obsessions with bathing and art and trade and their general decadence, are based on the Romans.
The Lyranans are more problematic. Here is the opening description of them:
"They spoke in similar ways, with that tonal quality, and their faces had nearly no expression, at least none that Minox could properly understand. The only thing he could get out of it was haughtiness, but that might just be his own biases. Even the graceful, fluid way they moved their hands was odd, almost inhuman. More disturbing was the difficulty he had in identifying their differences. There was no sense of age he could place on any of them."
The Lyranans have names like "Fao Nengtaj" and "Pra Yikenj"and their language includes words like "teungzhai". Characterized as being extremely formal and with an obsession with titles and propriety, they eat glass noodles with "strange utensils" and have one agent skilled in an exotic martial art. They speak with a "strange tonal quality", their writing is made up of complex symbols, and they value poetry, particularly in a specific complex form. Given all this, is it any wonder that the Lyranans came across as a shallow and ill-informed stereotype of generic Asian culture?
The Imachan culture was even more offensive. How sure am I that the Imach culture is ripped off of some of the worst stereotypes of Muslims? Well, they have names like"Nalassein Hajan," "Ghalad", "Kadabali," and "Assan Jabiudal". The men wear "thick beards" and women are forced to wear heavy fully-covering clothing and are generally considered "unclean." And their "Eht'shahala"-- way too close to "inshallah," isn't it? Oh, and they are religious zealots, run by "his High Holiness the Cehlat of Imachan", and the story involves two different sects who bitterly hate each other. How over-the-top offensive was the characterization? Well, here's an example quote:
"The presumption--an accepted convention--is that Imach men are enflamed by fair-haired Druth women, and even more so by my coloring."
"Surely they wouldn't attack you."
Look, I get it. Maresca is trying to write a book about racism, tolerance, and clash of cultures. There are quite a few gratifying moments when Minox is called out for his thoughtless assumptions and biases. But here's my problem: if you're trying to write a book about racism, you better be really, really sure that you aren't thoughtlessly invoking biased stereotypes. And in my opinion, Maresca lost that one and lost it hard. If you want to write about foreign cultures, even in fantasy, then I believe that you have to do it right and do the research. It can be done; The Golem and the Jinni is a beautiful example of respectful multicultural fantasy. If other authors are daunted by the seven years of research that Wexler put in, then why not use their imaginations and create their own cultures? This is supposed to be fantasy.Why attempt to superficially mimic real cultures rather than create your own? I just don't get it.
Maybe it was because I was already in a bad mood, but this book also injured my view of the protagonists. In this book, we learned that Satrine didn't actually earn her skills in the spy trade; he got them via magic which required no effort on her part. Worse still, Maresca finally applied to what started out as an important main character some of the most standard objectifications against women.
And to top it all, the mystery was, sad to say, pretty lame, although at least the characters thought so as well.(show spoiler)
Whenever I could rip my thoughts away from fuming about the Imach and Lyranan cultures, I tried to enjoy the book. We get to see all of the fun characters of A Murder of Mages as well as some sly mentions of the other story arc taking place in the world.
Is this book worth a read? Well, it's definitely worth checking out A Murder of Mages first. If you've fallen in love with the world, and your rage triggers aren't the same as mine, then maybe this book could be a lot of fun. The book also puts a larger story arc into position that I'm interested to explore further. Even though I'm mourning the missed opportunities of this book, you can definitely count me in for the next.
~~I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.