I don’t know if you knew this, but something is happening in Austin. Some cities seem to have a high concentration of talent. Some of these cities make sense, if only because of their relative size and access to the arts. New York, for instance, makes sense, as does Los Angeles. But, Austin is one of those cities where something is happening. Something is in the air or in the water. There are a lot of talented genre authors all revolving around each other in Austin. Stina Leicht, Amanda Downum, Robert Jackson Bennett, Martha Wells, Marshall Ryan Maresca, A. Lee Martinez, Jessica Reismann, Skyler White, and on and on, all seem to be on a scene in Austin where a lot of exciting things are happening. There’s a monthly gathering of genre folks that travel around from one bar to another in the city. There’s a lot of creative energy in the city, and a lot of people pursuing that energy really well. Patrice Sarath is part of this scene, and an underrated part of it. She has been producing high-quality work for years, including her early standout series beginning with In Gordath Wood. Of late, she has been producing a series of magical intrigue novels, starring the Sisters Mederos, who seek to overcome the corrupt political intrigue of a city run by a wicked guild using magic, luck, their wits, and methods both legal and illegal.
The city of Mederos hearkens to something like Renaissance Italy, with powerful families and trading empires forging alliances that are more powerful than politics, and often cutthroat. “Bandits to ballrooms in three generations,” is an expression in the city, and seems well in play as the different merchant houses press against each other for power. The decadence of new money mingling with old money and trouble follows the more respectable sister, the card sharp and naturally-talented magic-user, Tesara, through the parlors and gambling halls and parties where she makes her way into a harsh and cruel society scene that is clearly more interested in gossip as a form of power than any true enjoyment. What bliss and pleasures exist only seem to be a backdrop for the constant intrigue as houses press against each other for advantage. The streets are not safe, either. Paid agents of rival houses stalk the sisters. To escape notice, and take money and information from the opposing houses, Yvienne, the other sister, cross-dresses as a boy brigand with a mask over her face in the night, carrying old family pistols and using banditry as a means of revenge and evidence against her families’ hidden enemies.
A book like this can be measured by relationships and surprises. The sisters begin the story working alone, each stumbling into their purpose and abilities, and over the course of the first novel, their trust in each other grows out of the secrets they share as they begin to actually trust each other. It feels real, relatable. It also comes at a great price. Tesara’s secret shame is her magic power. And, she knows she is responsible for the destruction of the family fleet. It is a secret so terrible, Yvienne doesn’t even believe it when it is eventually revealed. Yvienne has spent her whole life so busy protecting her sister that she cannot imagine Tesara as an equal in power and potential. The surprises are all about who the family can trust, and what the gain from that trust. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that the Mederos house has a spy, and they probably earned the unpopularity that contributed to their downfall before the events of the book took place. After all, this is a city of corruption and intrigue, and to be successful means making enemies. These enemies spend much of the book shrouded in mystery – a ginger-haired man, a servant that is too good to be true, a sense of malice in the streets as the danger rises from unseen corners. If there is a weakness in the book it is that for much of the text the idea of the Guild is the enemy, and there is no concrete individuals to root against or to carry the mantle of distrust. The characters that will carry that mantle of power and distrust do not appear for a large portion of the early text that follows the family’s struggles to make their early steps towards solutions against an unknown foe. What clear and obvious enemies exist early in the text – the wicked school mistress, in particular, who breaks Tesara’s fingers – are not part of some nefarious larger scheme, per se. And, the visceral response to their actions overshadows the sense of dread that the narrative otherwise seeks to build. It is, per the rules set up by the text, itself, a necessity as the sisters must work to unravel the mystery, but does suggest readers are better served pushing through the text in one or two sittings, instead of attempting to come back to it later, as I did. I had to reread portions to remember who I was rooting against, because the visceral response of the broken fingers and poverty conditions stuck in the brain where political intrigue among guild families operating subtly was not rooted so deeply. It is a very minor quibble in an enjoyable book, and only really impacts readers who require long stretches in between sessions to finish a book. As the pieces fall into place, and mysteries come undone, the specter of malice finds those who wear that mantle soon enough.
I look forward to more adventures with Tesara and Yvenne Mederos, and expect the city of Port Saint Frey to prove itself as dangerous and thrilling as any in the realms of fantastic fiction.
Categories: Book Reviews