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Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Book Review: The Changeling Detective

First things first, before reading any further, put on the Angels song "Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again" as loud as compatible with domestic harmony.

First things second,I liked this eBook novella, I really, really liked it. Now I have to qualify this statement.

Because I know the author, Phillip Berrie. Heck, he's one of my best friends (despite the fact I haven't actually spoken to him for a decade, that's my hyper disorganization). We've bush walked together, played chess and D&D together and he's had me help out on his real-time RPG's. Without out him, I would have never won an award for role playing a demented squirrel. And he supported my nascent attempts at writing fiction.

So you can see that I could be a wee bit biased when I praise his eBook. Now I need to convince you that the praise is worthy.

For as long as genres have been genres, their supposed boundaries have been transgressed. Almost as soon as we had hard bitten, roughly hansom detectives with monosylabic names, their trench-coated forms have been found trudging the streets of Mars or Magical Kingdoms (or Magical Kingdoms on Mars). It's giving nothing away to reveal that "The Changeling Detective" is located in the Sci-Fi**/Fantasy spectrum of "Trench-coat" Detective fiction*.

The Sci-Fi/Fantasy trench-coat detective crossover has given us an enormous number of variants on the central detective character. We've had ordinary humans in a magical world (Garrett; TunFair), magical Humans in an "ordinary" world (Harry Dresden; Chicago), marginally magical (and marginally competent) Humans in a magical world (Thraxas; Turai), we've had vampire detectives, robot dectectives, steampunk anti-magical detectives and bird-like alien detectives who live in inverted cones on Mars. Does the world need another Sci-Fi/Fantasy detective novel?

Heck yeah! The central character's ability (cue David O'Dohert's "very mild superpowers") is refreshingly original and cleverly thought out. Okay, so it's vaguely related to the powers of the bad guy in Larry Niven's "the Meddler", and the powers of the bad guys in "Faded Steel Heat", but the characters ability is sufficiently different, and drives the story in interesting directions, that these vague antecedents are irrelevant. You will note I haven't told you what the ability is (or the name of the central character). We'll, I'm not going to, even though the ability is revealed in the first chapter, the pleasant surprise of finding out what it is (and the clever ways it is used) is worth it.

Okay, having said that I have given readers of this review A Clue, see if you can work it out.

"The Changeling Detective" has appropriate nods to the trench-coat detective genre, but with refreshing twists and playful inversions of tropes. There is the obligatory attractive red-haired woman (Glenn Cook, I'm looking at you), but whose role is anything but eyecandy or the clichéd roles normally reserved for this archetypical character. Her story takes the plot in an parallel direction to the one triggered by the main character (cue the Angels again "She Keeps No Secrets From You"), and she plays important roles in the action.

The "Changelingverse" is a modern day world very similar to our own, there are no clouds of pixies or bands of grumpy dwarfs, and no pseudomedieval castles loom over the action. There are gormless bartenders, nosey neigbours and zombie savvy kids (no zombies actually feature in the novella though).

Oh, yes, there's action, the plot fairly kicks along at a cracking pace (but not in the Hollywood sense of "the plot's not making sense? Here's an explosion or two to distract you"). The plot also has as many twists and turns as the back road to Mt. Tambourine** so even as a somewhat jaded Krimi*** reader I was turning the pages to see what happened next.

You may notice I haven't given a synopsis of the plot. A large chunk of the plot evolves from the central characters ability, so I can't discuss the plot without revealing the ability. Suffice to say there's a Dame With A Case, bad guys with guns, gunshots, sirens in the night and enough of the Trenchcoat Detective tropes to keep Sam Spade happy. The ability is consistent in the Changelingverse (with plenty of "hey that's cool" and "how is the ability going to get them out of that" moments), no Deux ex Machinations occur and there is a sufficent smattering of the self-depreciating humour Australians are famous for.

The novella ends on a cliff-hanger, in the sense that although the immediate plot issue is resolved, there are clear loose ends that make you impatient for the next novel (in the same way the Jo Nesbo's detective solves the immediate crime, but the unresolved story of his partners murder leads into and ties together the next few novels).

My only real issue with "The Changling Detective" is that there isn't a good feeling of "sense of place". While the story is set in modern day Canberra, Australia's capital, it could be anywhere in the English speaking world. I've been to a number of the locations mentioned in the novella, and I didn't feel the book took me there.

True, Phil has two serious barriers to making a real sense of place. Firstly, it is Canberra, famously described as "a bloody good paddock ruined". It's the kind of place that makes Milton-Keynes and Bonn look exciting. Getting a sense of place from such a setting is difficult, even if you do mention Tuggeranong (but then, maybe the bland anonymity is its sense of place).

Secondly, the work is a novella, and you are up against space. It takes more than driving a Holden into a kangaroo while eating a meat pie to give a sense of place, just like it takes more than Jo Nesbo mentioning Fiords, rollmops and towns called Hallorgenvasenbaad gives you the sense of place in Norway, and more than walking out into a cloud of Pixies for Glenn Cook to give you the feeling of TunFair.

It takes space to subtley draw this out. It's easier for Jo Nesbo, his novels are 500+ page doorstops (even when you throw in Nazi's, Skinheads and gypsy crimelords there's plenty of space for exposition of "place"). In a novella you have to draw the plot more tightly, and Phil has used no cheap shortcuts. I am pleased to report no character cracks a tinny of Fosters in the whole novella. I think Phil has done a good job in the face of these limitations.

So if you want a fresh and engaging Sci-Fi/Fantasy trench-coat detective story whose character has a novel ability, and whose plot moves along at a cracking pace, I highly recommend "The Changling Detective". I give it 4.5 enchanted daggers out of 5 and I'm waiting for the next instalment.

* As opposed to police procedural, Sherlock Holmsian and "little old lady" versions of the detective genre

**Don't give me grief over Sci-Fi vs SF or whatever acronym you wish to use, I was there in the 70's. The arguments were pointless then and are still pointless.

*** see what I did there. Also, don't try this road in a camper van if you don't want a heart attack every 100 meters

**** one of the few lasting effects of my European postdoctoral stint is a tendency to call murder mystery novels Krimi's, helped along by our Swedish friends sendinging us Scandinavian Krimi's. Hence the Jo Nesbo references.


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