Steven Brust is a literary treasure and his longrunning Vlad Taltos series, now nearing its final volume, is a good example of where his strengths lie: hardboiled plotting, snappy dialog, weirdly realistic and plausible depictions of magic, and a sensitive eye for power relationships and their depiction, all of which are on display in his latest, outstanding novel, Good Guys, about the minimum-wage sorcerers who investigate magical crimes on behalf of a secret society.
Donovan is the leader of an investigative cell that works on behalf of the Foundation, the smaller, less-well-funded of the two secret societies — the other being the Roma Vindices Mystici, a much older, richer society that is their rival (of sorts).
He lands a string of murder cases that appear to have been accomplished by means of sorcery, each calculated to be more cruel and violent than the last. We, the readers, meet the man who is committing these murders through a series of snapshotted moments in his point of view, hinting at his motives and the identity of the man who is arranging for him to commit these crimes.
Donovan and his small team enact a police procedural — with magic. Chasing the criminal, they are attacked, wounded, and frustrated by the cash-strapped bureaucracy for which they work. They console themselves by assuring themselves that they are the “good guys” (because if they were the bad guys, they’d be earning more than minimum wage), and press on, despite the looming sense that the Foundation may not be on the side of righteousness, and indeed may not be entirely separate from the Mystici.
Brust marshalls a large cast of characters, especially for such a short, tightly plotted book, and every one of them believes that they are the Good Guys, even though it’s clear that at least some of them aren’t. It’s a beautiful bit of noir hardboiled storytelling, in which people may have good qualities, but no one is unambiguously good.
It’s a brilliant setup for a tight, thrilling detective novel by way of an urban fantasy — a genre Brust helped to invent. Fans of the Taltos novels will recognize all the customary Brustian elements here, but reconfigured in a way we haven’t seen from him before — and to excellent effect. New readers will get a tour of what makes Brust beloved by all the writers whose blurbs grace his cover, from me to John Scalzi to Neil Gaiman to Roger Zelazny.
Good Guys [Steven Brust/Tor Books]
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