Monday, December 4, 2023

[Microreview]: Island of Time by Davis Bunn

Urban fantasy on the shores of Lake Geneva

Urban fantasy so often confines itself to very sleek, modern American cities that clash aesthetically with traditional urban fantasy; that disconnect drives the interest, I feel. You also get London a good fair bit, but other European cities don’t get as many stories like this. I suspect, although I can’t confirm in any way, that Americans, at least, see old European cities as being too close to the fantasy they love to elicit the sense of wonder (as odd as that sounds, we Americans find cobblestone streets exotic, and I was once stunned by a restaurant owner in Britain saying the building he owned was ‘only’ two hundred years old). Today, we’re discussing an urban fantasy novel set in a European city—I can only remember a few works of genre fiction even being set in the country!

That country is Switzerland, that city is Geneva, and that book is Island of Time by Davis Bunn. This is the first I have read by him; I found this book, as I have so many books that I have loved, just browsing the stacks at the library in my neighborhood (and I am infinitely blessed to have that library within walking distance, no matter how many times it gets used as a political football during county budget negotiations). It is a slim volume, just under two hundred pages, and I blasted through it.

Bunn has chosen a unique sort of agency around which his work revolves. His protagonists are mostly law enforcement officers, as is common in this sort of fiction, but they work for INTERPOL, who has an office dealing with magic in Geneva. It’s not something I’ve seen in much fiction, period, and it pleasantly surprised me (although I admit a slight annoyance that he forgets that the INTERPOL headquarters is in Lyon, not Brussels—the liaison office to the European Union is in Brussels, analogous to the office in New York that liaises with the United Nations, but the worldwide headquarters is in Lyon—something all the more frustrating, albeit still mildly so, because Lyon works geographically for some key events in the plot! I’m a pedant, I know).

The plot begins with what appears to be a murder in a mansion overlooking the city of Geneva, but it is rapidly found to be something both involving the occult and definitively within the remit of INTERPOL. This involves the talents of multiple INTERPOL officers, as well as a suspicious man with no eyes and with a vast arcane knowledge and connections to the underground world of magic. This is made more complicated by the fact that Switzerland has banned the use of magic for its entire existence as a sovereign nation.

The international politics in this book is interesting, as it is such a clear way of showing off the world while never feeling shoehorned into the plot; people are shunted back and forth between different INTERPOL offices because of mundane organizational disputes. Different jurisdictions have different rules about magic, and different agencies have different legal and technical abilities to deal with magic (I wonder if Bunn has had any dealings with this sort of thing; he has worked in finance, which has myriad permutations of law, as the infamous Swiss banks can attest to). This complexity increases with the magical underground, with seven different Institutes, as Bunn calls them, governing magic users (akin more to secret fraternities than anything else). It is here where the worldbuilding starts to muddle a bit: you get the impression that a degree of magical knowledge is accessible to the general public, but the bounds of that are never quite made clear.

The actual magic is filled with pyrotechnics and some interesting and delightfully weird concepts. The central mystery of the novel is something that has been done before, but here it's done in a convincing and clever way, resembling ever so slightly Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The rest of the magic, though, does feel somewhat underdeveloped, and there’s a role that precognition plays in the story that feels a little too convenient at times, perhaps used when a mundane way of figuring out a problem would be more narratively compelling. Even so, Bunn succeeds in wowing you, with a few moments that are stunning by virtue of how well the scenes are constructed.

The INTERPOL office in Geneva, if this book is to be any indication, is filled with troubled, indeed broken, people. The main character lost his wife in an accident, another is an immigrant who feels somewhat lost, and another has run the gamut of magical experience before turning coat to the authorities. Different characters come from different organizations, and the friction comes to the fore here; the best bits are the mundane Swiss police having to deal with something their government has formally banned. They are thrust into a world of memos written only for a few top brass, never put in the regular archives; and it is all under lock and key. Part of me thinks that having the dead wife of the male main character is a tad cliché and has some unfortunate implications, but it is used well, and fits the broader constellation of the story in a way that is more justified than in most similar stories. Likewise, I had some reservations about the use of sexual assault in the backstory of a female protagonist, but again, it has enough connections to the broader story that it works better than most; both of these issues feel justified, rational, not shoed in for added tension. Not everyone will like it, I feel, but I could accept them.

Island of Time is a successful, brief urban fantasy novel that largely succeeds at what it wants to do. It reminded me of Alex Shvartsman’s Conradverse series, and in the most complimentary way. It’s good fun, pure and simple, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in urban fantasy.

Highlights: the weird magic

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Bunn, Davis. Island of Time [Severn House, 2022].

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