I recognised the author’s name from previous Scifi Best Of anthologies and magazine stories in Analog (or Azimov?)
Then the blurb made me take the literary hook.
Check this out:
“A war-dragon of Babel crashes in the idyllic fields of a postindustralized Faerie and, dragging himself into the nearest village, declares himself king and makes young Will his lieutenant. Nightly he invades the young fey’s mind to get a measure of what his subjects think.
Eventually forced from the village, Will travels with female centaur soldiers, witnesses the violent clash of giants, and acquires a surrogate daughter, Esme, who may be immortal. Evacuated to the Tower of Babel — infinitely high, infinitely vulgar — Will rises as an underling to a haint politician and meets his one true love — a high-elven woman to whom he dare not aspire.”
War-dragon. Centaur soldiers. Just conjures up fantastic visions and promises of action; the sort that guys stereotypically like. Which I believe we do.
Plus the hints and promise of romance and intrigue.
The main protagonist is a man-child called Will, whose origin was of a mystery even to himself. His life changes when he is forced to work for the war-dragon. From there till his meeting of the centaur soldiers is pretty slick and exciting stuff. You’ll hate me if I give the plot away.
Will meets Esme, a young child who seems to have exceptional luck. Along the way, Will finds himself a mentor by the name of Nat, who is a con-artist and has plans for a grand scam.
The trio ends up in Babel, which is like the main hub of high civilisation. Will finds work with a politician, learns to be city-smart. There’s an exciting side-adventure where Will finds himself leading a band of underground insurgents.
The conclusion is also coherently slick. All the seemingly hidden agendas and disparate plot lines come together into a final coherent reveal.
Gene Wolfe called this work a “machine-age fantasy universe”. I call this Steam Punk. But not quite, because there is an element of the fantastic: magics and elemental mythical beings.
Maybe its a universe where Faeries acquire technology. Or perhaps it’s a advanced industrial society that chose to shape itself along mythical lines, built to a level that technology is indistinguishable from magic.
It’s a refreshing concept for me, whatever the case.
Almost immediately into the first few pages of the novel, I was reminded of Gibson’s Neuromancer, McCaffery’s Dragons of Pern and Pratchet’s An Mor Pok. Or, World of Warcraft meets Halo, in the realm of electronic games.
Whatever I might call it, this novel was definitely unputdownable. I devoured this in three days. Less, if I had the entire day to read. Definitely one of those books that give reading fiction a great reputation.
Btw it’s a 2007 story first published in 2008 (paperback edition came out in 2011). I think this will be a timeless classic.