Trickster by Jeff Somers (Pocket, Feb. 20013)-I’ve had Jeff Somers’ Avery Cates series sitting on my shelf forever. Yeah, I know, shame on me, right? Well, no worries, I’ve been introduced to his awesome in the form of Trickster, which is just the sort of down and dirty UF I’ve come to love (see Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series.) Lem Vonnegan is a Trickster, a mage of seemingly modest talent, getting by on small cons and grifts, along with his friend, the simple minded, childlike giant Mags, who is nearly entirely dependent on Lem. It’s important to note that Cantrips must have blood in order to work, yet, while other mages have no problem using others for their blood needs (aka Bleeders), Lem made a vow a long time ago never to bleed others for his magic. As a result, he’s nearly always exhausted from continuous blood loss. Mags can also cast simple spells, but his capabilities are very limited. When Trickster opens, they’re just about on their last dime and hope to score from a long abandoned mansion. However, the only thing they find is a dead girl in the tub, marked with runes. It’s certainly a harbinger of things to come, and after they join a “circus” of sorts, an involved con run by an unscrupulous mage, they discover a similarly marked girl in the trunk of a car, but she’s still alive. Lem and Mags rescue the girl, Claire, only to be drawn into the plans of some of the most powerful mages in the world. See, they need Claire for their plan, and will do anything, and hurt anyone, to get her back.
I’m a sucker for stories about the “little guy/gal” fighting back against awesome and terrible power. Lem is the little guy here, but in this case, it’s for all the right reasons. He’s rather talented at spell recitation and has a knack for cutting things down to the bare bones to get things done. If he had the use of unlimited blood, the sky is the limit, but he’s seen and experienced firsthand what using others to fuel magic does, and refusing to be part of that is one of the few things that’s kept him from a downward spiral. Lem loves Mags, but being a Trickster is a pretty lonely existence, and when the lovely, fierce Claire comes into the picture, he begins to see what could be. The only problem is, that to defeat Mika Renar, the Archmage who would use Claire to her ends, will be nearly impossible using only himself as a blood source. What to do? He gets minor help from some dubious sources, but he may have to do the one thing he despises on order to get the job done, to get even close to stopping Renar. Lem broke my heart with his yearning to do the right thing, in spite of his frequent missives of “we are not good people”, and his affection for Mags (who comes across like a particularly large and loyal puppy), consistently belies that notion as well. Mika Rinar and her lapdog, Amir, are two nasty, evil customers with mass murder on their minds, and frankly, the idea that Lem Vonnegan can defeat them on his own is a long shot at best, but it sure doesn’t keep him from trying, and damn, what a trip. Don’t expect a pretty bow tying up events at the end of Trickster, either.
The author keeps things wide open for a sequel, and I can only hope this is the start of a long series. Trickster will hit you like a freight train and take you plummeting at warp speed down its tracks, toward a helluva finish. If you’re looking for UF that shatters the mold, then rebuilds it into a dark, dank, unforgiving (and sometimes frankly disturbing) world of magic and bloodletting, then you’re in for a treat. Plus, Lem and Mags are heroes that are truly worth their salt, with plenty of flaws, scars (literal and figurative), and insecurities. There’s so much more to be explored in this world, and I can’t wait.