Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Novella Project: A Necessary Chaos by Brent Lambert

 A constantly expanding package of juicy worldbuilding, great characters and hot hot feelings

Vade thinks Althus is really, really hot. The two of them have been hooking up sporadically for years in various far-flung locations, but it's never gotten super serious between them... and it can't, because Vade is a magical assassin, and Althus is the amoral terrorist he's been contracted to tail and, eventually, to kill. It'll be a shame to lose out on all the mind-blowing sex once he's dead, but Vade's inner voice is saying that it's a great idea and surely it's just another job, right?

Althus thinks Vade is really, really hot. Sure, he's a killer working for the Amos-Morbine Compact, one of the three corporate political entities which has contracted with hellish alternate dimensions to bring magic to the world. And sure, as a member of the Phantom Dragons anarchist group, he's duty bound to kill him at some point. But really, it's hard to emphasise just how fine this man is. It'll be a shame when Althus has to kill him but every rebellion has a few casualties, and a remorseless assassin isn't a death to lose sleep over, surely?

Vade's superior, Desiree, says its time to make a move. Althus' superior, Karmola, thinks it's also time to make a move. Vade's inner voice is really quite interested in death and destruction and oh, huh, maybe it's not the regular type of inner voice? Seemingly nothing can get in the way of a murderous outcome, except... oh, what's this? Feelings? And the feelings say "screw mutually assured destruction, let's bring down the corrupt corporate government"?

Well then.

One of the hallmarks of novella storytelling is the balance of storytelling elements the author chooses to include within the constrained length. Because there aren't hundreds of pages to tell a story in, this often translates to few characters or shallower, archetypal characterisation, or less intricate worldbuilding, or less time for characters to process their emotions around the events of the story, lightening in some areas so that other elements can shine. These choices aren't bad - and as a reader, I've gotten better at not getting to the end of a novella and going "cool, but why didn't they just do everything" - but they're often quite visible and have an impact on how I as a reader enjoy a particular story. Somehow, however, those constraints don't apply to A Necessary Chaos, which manages to pack in everything it could possibly need into an accomplished tightly woven novella-length package.

First up, you've got Althus and Vade, and the book wastes no time in establishing both of them through the lens of their lust for one another. Althus and Vade do have quite similar "voices", a fact which is most obvious while their stories are mirroring each other, but their circumstances diverge plenty in the second act once Sides Are Taken, and I think the similarity in how each thinks about the other reinforces their connection rather than getting confusing or same-y. An interesting supporting cast soon follows - I particularly enjoyed Karmola, Althus' take-no-shit superior, and Sajime, his colleague and fellow magic wielder - and we get enough about their lives, and the unexpected connections between them, to make the stakes for everyone feel real as the plot progresses. 

Through the opening, we also learn about the politics and magic of this world, developed through contact with dimensions of torture, cancer and war, powers which tie in beautifully with the garbage corporations that wield them. Both Vade and Althus have the power of Two-Voice, as bestowed by the torture domain, and are able to secretly command and manipulate people around them while apparently speaking innocuous sentences. Said magic doesn't come into play a lot, but when it does it's pivotal and often quite creepy, underlining its provenance. The relationships between the magic and politics are effectively drawn without being oversimplified - magic is the provenance of corporations but an unaffiliated person like Althus can still wield it if he's already learned. Vade's politics, as the point of view character who starts on the wrong side of the imperialist divide, are pretty easily changed by a combination of cold hard facts and also learning a bit more about that pesky Inner Voice, and it lets him get an earned HEA with Althus at the end. There's a steep on-ramp to some of these worldbuilding elements but it never gets overwhelming, and the magical domains make for an unusual magic system whose fundamentals are easily grasped in the space of a novella.

And then there's the FEELINGS and. oh boy. If the idea of one character saying "I love you, you idiot" to their soulmate gets you fuzzy in the tummy, THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU. Vade and Althus are introduced to us through a steamy beach scene, and somehow both of them find the time in the midst of the constant happenings of this book to constantly check in internally on their feelings as they progress from lust to reluctant antagonism to genuine love and a desire to start over openly with each other.

This is a great novella, and I'm in awe of the technical accomplishment to make so many different pieces fit together. Come for the romance, stay for the magic - all of it.