When required to place this book in a genre Burnett has previously chosen science fiction and urban fantasy. It might also be categorised as supernatural fiction or horror. The opening scenes have an ambience of crime noir and spy thriller. While the book very definitely contains speculative elements, the story takes precedence over the speculation, refusing to be confined by genre.
This novel is the first in the Book of Lost Doors series. The protagonist, James Ozryck, has shared his body with an inhuman consciousness since early childhood; a consciousness he calls Catskinner. Catskinner gives him access to superhuman abilities but also kills without apparent reason or compassion. He finds work as a contract assassin but the murder of his boss reveals Catskinner is not the only unnatural being in the world, and not all of them are as content to merely exist. Before James can build himself a new future he must try to understand his past.
At the core of this novel’s strength is the characterisation. As with Byronic heroes such as Milton’s Lucifer and Hammett’s Sam Spade, James Ozryck is unashamedly not a good man, but from the first page Burnett paints him a character flawed by extreme circumstance and environment; a man worthy of our sympathy. Catskinner is similarly well handled, possessing a distinct intelligible character without sacrificing its otherness. The competing drives of the two main characters blend to produce a dynamic balance between ensuring survival and having a reason to survive.
The complexity of motivation in James/Catskinner continues into the other characters. While characters might be of a particular gender or sexuality they act like individuals and not stereotypes, each displaying personal goals that temporarily coincide or conflict with others. However Burnett does not fall into the trap of making characters defy stereotypes for the sake of it; beyond the nuanced interaction of the key characters are many background interactions which realistically portray the hollow biases that power our stereotypes.
A similar depth is evident in the cosmology. The reader is slowly exposed to more of the magic concealed within every day society, each piece building on others and providing new possibilities for previous events until the disparate pieces fit together to not only show they are all aspects of one whole but also ignite speculation about how it might explain anomalies in the real world.
The book is written entirely from the perspective of James, which portrays very well his search for answers and frustration when he does not find them; however this identification with James can instil the same drive and the same frustration in the reader. As the book is well paced, and Burnett does not withhold information merely to extend the story, this frustration is quickly eased, but this is not a book for readers who do not enjoy the satisfaction of a hard-won explanation.
This is one of the best books I have read this year. The fusion of an engaging plot with a complex world make it enjoyable both as a thrilling adventure and a metaphysical exploration. I recommend it to anyone who does not limit themselves to strict realism.
About The Reviewer
Dave Higgins writes speculative fiction, often with a dark edge. Despite forays into the mundane worlds of law and IT, he was unable to escape the liminal zone between mystery and horror. A creature of contradictions, he also co-writes comic sci-fi with Simon Cantan.
Born in the least mystically significant part of Wiltshire, England, and raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and hasn’t stopped since. He lives with his wife, two cats, a plush altar to Lord Cthulhu, and many shelves of books.
It’s rumoured he writes out of fear he will otherwise run out of books to read.
Learn more about Dave and his work at http://davidjhiggins.wordpress.com/