Twenty Palaces

August 14, 2013

by Harry Connolly

Child of Fire, Game of Cages, Circle of Enemies

I have a bit of a science fiction and fantasy habit. If you read a lot of SF&F, it can be hard to find the diamonds among the dross. For some reason, the sub-genre usually called urban fantasy has more than its fair share of dross, which made it a pleasant surprise to discover Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series. These three novels (plus a more recently published prequel) hit a lot of the usual urban fantasy tropes (fairly violent, noirish characters, magic that isn’t all ponies and rainbows, a “world behind the world”) but it confounds a lot of others in ways that make it anything but dross.

All of which makes it hard to understand why these books haven’t been much more successful than they have, and why Connolly has had to abandon the series for the moment to concentrate on other things. From what he says, his publisher (Del Rey) was unfailingly supportive, but the market just doesn’t seem to like what he was writing. He wrote a long blog article about why this might be, but it makes little sense – the most common complaints about the series are about the things that make it interesting and different!

One complaint is that the relationship between the two main characters (Ray Lilly and Annalise Powell) has no romance angle to it. What the relationship has instead is a gradual flowering of trust between two people who are forced to work together, who have very different perspectives on the experiences that they share (informed by very different backgrounds). Romantic entanglement would make no sense for these two, but what Connolly writes feels like a very realistic and nuanced treatment of the development of their respect for and understanding of each other. I honestly think that the Ray/Annalise relationship is one of the best things going on in the books.

Another complaint is that Ray uses his ghost knife too much. Ray is a guy who is in many ways quite ordinary, and who has been shoved into a world governed by rules that he’s only slowly learning. He managed, through great risk and not a little luck, to make himself a magical item. It’s the only tool he has that will work against some of the foes he encounters, and it’s really useful. Connolly commented that he thought of Ray’s use of his ghost knife as being similar to the use of a gun by a private detective in a crime novel: that wouldn’t seem weird at all. I think the ghost knife thing goes deeper than that though. It’s Ray’s one real advantage in what often turns out to be a fight for his life, and the tension between his need for this tool and the link he shares with it because he created it, and the threat that it will be taken away from him (in the rules of the Twenty Palaces Society, the way he made this thing is a killing crime) makes his dependence on the knife much more than the dependence of a PI on his gun.

All in all, I think the series is really good. Some of the “monsters” are very imaginatively drawn, there’s a bit of (darker than dark) humour, and the characterisation of Ray and Annalise doesn’t get lost in the sometimes frantic rush of events. I hope Connolly’s upcoming projects are more successful (I’ll buy whatever he writes!) and that in time he can come back to Ray and Annalise and the rest of the Twenty Palaces universe.