Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Ingenious by Darius Hinks

The Ingenious never quite capitalises on the promise of its worldbuilding, but it offers a fun, fast-paced adventure with a surprisingly sympathetic antihero. 

Art by John Coulthart
I'm considering adding "secondary world fantasy cities" to my list of "favourite genres that aren't really genres". Cities that go beyond just being a spot on the map surrounding whatever medieval-ish castle the kingdom's monarchs live in; cities with their own magic, with recognisable neighbourhoods, with immigration patterns and multifaceted politics and secrets known only to kids who pay attention (but don't spend enough time in school). From Bulikov to Sharakhai to Janloon, there's a ton of great epic fantasy whose urban settings are just as much characters as the people within them.

With that in mind, it's easy to see why the blurb of The Ingenious, a book about Exiles trapped in the city of Athanor. Unfortunately for them, Athanor operates on inequality and deeply creepy magic, and leaving is a far from certain proposition. Rather than staying in one place, it moves through space and time using that magic, apparently leaving a path of wholesale slaughter and destruction everywhere it goes. Brought into the city years ago, Isten and her group are Exiles from a land called Rukon, where they were on the verge of revolution against their emperor. Now, they're unable to leave the city let alone return to the land which rejected them. Isten herself has been raised up to be a saviour for her people, and is still looked to as a leader by the rest of the Exiles despite being an addict, a criminal and a general mess of a human.

Enter Alzen, an elite mage (or "Curious Man") who, even by the deeply creepy standards of the city, really pushes creepy to a new, murderous, self-serving level. Alzen realises that Isten can be manipulated to his own ends, which involve introducing widespread drug addiction into the city and then pulling people's souls out through a weird skin monster, all in pursuit of power. Although his partnership with Isten is initially reluctant, he quickly discovers that despite being a commoner and an outsider, Isten may have power of her own that complements his ambitions. In return, Alzen offers Isten a chance to refocus her people's efforts around improving their position within the city - where they are outsiders surviving on the criminal margins - albeit at the cost of her long-term plans for escape.

I see from Hinks' bibliography that his previous work has been Warhammer tie-in fiction, and although my experience with that franchise is limited, I know enough to see the influences here. It's echoed in some of the plot beats, and in the grimdark elements of the setting, especially the ageless, quasi-religious aspects of the city's leadership. That said, The Ingenious definitely feels first and foremost like its own thing, though the worldbuilding is probably best described as serviceable: it gives Athanor depth and history, and the set-up of the Curious Men and the city's wandering nature adds a decent amount of novelty, but there's nothing that really leaps out upon reading. In theory, Athanor is full of various unique fantasy races, but these only turn up in passing, which feels like a missed opportunity. Instead, we get a laser focus on the two specific groups the novel comes into contact with - the exiles and the Curious Men - and while both do interact with (and sometimes murder) people from other groups in the city, the trials of the rest of this enormous city aren't explored outside a general "inequality is bad, overthrow tyrants" message that winds up being interchangeable for both Rukon and Athanor.

Likewise the personalities of the exiles, and their own troubles in the city - there's machinations around gang warfare, but none of the characters on either side were particularly memorable, and Isten spends so much time focused on running errands for Alzen that the elements with her family fade into the background at times. It doesn't help that it's hard, as a reader, to believe that Isten really wants to retrench as a drug lord: it's a trope that's so often used to distinguish "actually bad" criminals from "noble" ones, so it's a tall order to slot a sympathetic character in that role, and despite her many shortcomings Isten remains sympathetic throughout. The issue here is not so much the predictability of Isten's change of heart - the narrative wouldn't be at all satisfying without it - but my struggle to suspend my disbelief in what the character thinks she wants. It's a small niggle, but it was enough to underscore my indifference in these plot elements, which becomes a problem when we pivot back to the fate of the Exiles, and Isten's integrity as a leader, in the final act.

What The Ingenious does do well is managing its action and tension, particularly the relationship between Isten and Alzen, helped by the fact that the latter literally sits in the former's head for their missions together. Isten's growing understanding of how the city works outside her limited outsider perspective, coupled with the taste of power her deal with Alzen brings, makes for a solid character arc that kept me rooting for her even through the messiness and  flirtations with drug-pushing supremacy. The action sequences are all well done - a highlight is the segment in which Isten disguises herself and sneaks onto a boat leaving the city, all while being mentally directed by Alzen and trying to avoid suspicion despite the fact that neither of them are very good at the subterfuge.

All in all, this is a solidly crafted read which could easily fill a spare evening; fans of dark but not entirely amoral fiction, of well-built fantasy cities, and of the kind of elite vs. underdog political machinations found in books like Bradley P. Beaulieu's "Song of Shattered Sands", should find elements here that appeal. While it never rose above the level of diversion for me, and I miss the opportunity to have really dug down into the genuinely diverse fantasy city that's glimpsed in the background of this narrative, I think The Ingenious does what it sets out to do, and that's plenty.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Isten is quite likeable for an aspiring all-powerful drug lord; +1 Entertaining action scenes

Penalties: -1 Diversity of the main characters never quite reflects the promise of the city's worldbuilding

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.