Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Review: Kakistocracy

It's about rule by the worst, but it's written by the best

In the introduction to the anthology Down These Strange Streets, George R. R. Martin defined urban fantasy as the confluence of the hard-boiled detective story and the horror story. That, to some degree, shows why it is such a fertile subgenre, as it has license to draw from multiple literary traditions. One of them, of course, is the common wise-cracking, straight-talking detective. In the newer works of Alex Shvartsman, we have another great supernatural sleuth: Conrad Brent. Brent has now had his second foray in a planned trilogy, the first being 2022’s The Middling Affliction, which I previously reviewed for Warped Factor. That second foray is 2023’s Kakistocracy, published by Caezik.

The word ‘Kakistocracy’ means, literally, ‘rule by the worst people.’ Various real governments notwithstanding, the book examines multiple cases of such a situation, earthly and otherwise. James Madison, fourth president of the United States, said, ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,’ and Kakistocracy is an examination of that proposition in a way that only a fantasy novel can: with a literal government of angels (as well as demons and other creatures).

New York has just elected a populist real estate mogul with funny hair as mayor who hates those who can use magic, and intends to suppress the Watch, the quasi-government entity that defends the city from supernatural threats, also the employer of Conrad Brent. Conrad also has the misfortune of being assigned to hash out a real estate deal between Heaven and Hell, as well as prevent an invasion of the human realm by forces from another plane via a process that Shvartsman calls ‘rap battles with memories.’ It is a novel that is dense with plot threads, and yet Shvartsman succeeds in never letting it feel convoluted. It’s a circus juggling act with flaming torches of a plot, and yet, in the manner of a Timothy Zahn, all these simultaneous things keep moving along.

Shvartsman won my heart with Conrad Brent in the first book, and he doesn’t disappoint here in the character department. Conrad is striking as a male urban fantasy protagonist with a heart that has not yet succumbed to cynicism. There is goodness in him, and he believes in goodness, and in saving life and preventing conflict. He is given a deft foil in another character, who has begun to see the benefits of kindness rather than the naked self-interest so common in this genre. You also get some other great characters, although to give away too much would ruin the fun (one of them involves a house).

Shvartsman writes some of the best action scenes I’ve ever read, partially because his prose is just that good and partially because he never sinks into letting his action be meaningless. It’s also action with plenty of pyrotechnics, with some very creative use of magic in the proceedings. In this regard, he reminds me of the best of the authors Warhammer 40,000 has to offer, particularly Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill.

A more understated, but all the more potent, aspect of Kakistocracy is the setting: a living, breathing New York. Shvartsman knows what Stan Lee did, that a real city feels more vivid, more vibrant than a fictional city, and his New York leaps off the page, with both glory and grime, as big cities do. It feels more true-to-life that way.

Kakistocracy is one hell of a ride through both this realm and the next, with an engrossing plot and an all-too-real (and hysterically funny) protagonist as your narrator. Best of all, it is a book with so much heart undergirding the plot like the scaffolding of a sturdy building. Read The Middling Affliction first, then dive right into Kakistocracy—you won’t regret it.

Highlights: wonderful main character, great action, great supernatural stuff.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.