Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Books (Fantasy): Whispering Nickel Idols

My wrap-up post on The Ancestor's Tale got delayed a little when, over the weekend, I happened to notice that Glen Cook has a new Garrett book out: Whispering Nickel Idols. Garrett books are on my "must read immediately, then re-read the whole series" list, so everything else got side-tracked.

Cook's Garrett novels are hard-boiled detective fantasy novels -- Mickey Spilane meets Mother Goose, Brothers Grim, various mythologies, and Tolkien. Cook is better known for his Black Company series, which is good but very dark (I have to be in a proper mood to read any of them). The Garrett books are much lighter to read, but are often still dark.

I don't actually read a lot -- well, any -- hard-boiled detective novels, so I can't actually compare the Garrett books to the original genre directly. Just as I first encountered many popular songs via covers or parodies, I know noir best through imitations and spoofs. Still, the basics are pretty well known, and are all found in Garrett: the tough-but-honest, perpetually broke, skirt-chasing gumshoe; the cops who don't trust him; the crime bosses; etc. But Cook puts them in an unusual setting.

Garrett's adventures take place in a fantasy world that draws from just about every fantasy tradition out there. Just about every sort of mythological beastie can be found in Garrett's home city of TunFaire: elves (Tolkien type, not Keebler), trolls, centaurs, dwaves, pixies, and so on. The city is the most cosmopolitan part of a human kingdom which was, through the first half of the series, at war with a neighbouring country -- though, apart from flashbacks to Garrett's life as a Marine during the war, most of the stories take place within a day's ride of town.

While the genre is definitely fantasy, the time period is more pre-Industrial Revolution than medieval, with some notable oddities. There are no firearms, for example, presumably because sorcerers with overdramatic names (that Garrett likes to poke fun of in his narrative) like Stormwarden Raver Styx handle all the heavy artillery during wartime. But the most recent few books have included background stories involving early forms of mass production.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Garrett books is how each novel builds on the previous ones. Each one is sufficiently self-contained to be read on its own, but if you read them in order you can follow background story arcs which span several novels each, enriching the world Cook's inventing. Many of the stories are simply there to do just that, but some also eventually become foreground stories in later novels.

Another aspect of the Garrett books is that, in spite of the relatively frivolous-seeming genre (Sam Spade and the Seven Dwarves!), the novels can be quite dark. It's not uncommon that the solution to the mystery leaves no-one happy. Old Tin Sorrows, which revolves around haunts and zombies and introduces the character of Elenor who stays with Garrett through all the subsequent novels -- even through she was long dead by the time the novel starts -- comes to mind.

Whispering Nickle Idols (you may have noticed that the titles I've mentioned have the form [adjective] [metal] [plural noun] -- all of the titles in the series do that) is one of the more upbeat of the novels, involving infighting among factions of TunFaire's organized crime and an out-of-town cult that derives its strength from terror and dispair. But all of the recurring characters survive this volume (something that is not guaranteed in these novels) and some of the more deranged and/or miserable ones have some hope for the future.

My least favourite thing about a new Garrett book coming out is that it means that it'll probably be another three years until the next one. And Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Verkosigan books -- a space opera series I also enjoy -- don't really fill the gap.

That and the way Roc Fantasy insists on using cover art that shows Garrett in a fedora, when the books mention -- several times -- that he hates wearing hats. (In one novel, Garrett disguises himself by simply putting a hat on and affecting a limp, since he knows that those looking for him know that he never wears a hat.) For some reason, the Garrett cover art always includes both elements from the novel (in this case, pixies, Belinda Contague, and a bucket of kittens) and elements that appear nowhere in the novel at all (the fedora, and, in this case, a tentacle-haired fish-creature and a Star-Trek-alien looking guy with horns and a goatee).

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