It was supposed to be one last favor for an old friend: track down the man who tortured and murdered Branko Bojich’s wife (along with many, many other people) and exact revenge so that a dying man could have some measure of peace in his last few days. Dusan Slorzack seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, but the search for him is being done by none other than legendary Laytham Ballard, world-famous wizard. Shouldn’t be too much trouble.
At least that’s what he thinks until a possible connection to Slorzack turns up dead. And then another. And another. Fires and strangulations and at least one car bomb, seven bodies in all, sending a very clear message: Back off. Now Ballard has to go on the run while trying to find a Serbian war criminal with possible ties to the Devil himself, all without getting killed by demons, disappeared by dirty cops, or losing any more pieces of his soul than he’s already traded away.
R.S. Belcher’s first two books were set in the Old West in a little town that’s gotten surprisingly used to supernatural events. His latest novel, Nightwise, is a modern day urban fantasy where supernatural events are everywhere, with magicians, gods, and monsters in a life-or-death struggle – or just trying to make a living – all taking place just below the surface of what the rest of us believe is “reality”.
Laytham Ballard tells us the adventure in all it’s gory details, and the author has created an incredibly appealing narrator in the former backwoods West Virginian-turned-magician with an almost rock-star status. Cynical, smart-aleck, charming when he wants to be, and terrifyingly good at what he does, Ballard is a hell of a lot of fun to read.
He’s also not one of the good guys. Not by a long shot. And he’s the first one to admit it.
One of the first things Ballard does in this book is to set up a magical diversion so his pursuers will chase after some random stranger who’ll most likely get torn to pieces when they catch him. And then he does the same thing again later. And then he does it again. The guy leaves a trail of bodies in his wake; his whole history is filled with incidents of theft and betrayal, and he usually doesn’t have to think twice about abandoning friends just so he can survive one more day.
Some of this is balanced out by the fact that he truly doesn’t enjoy when good people suffer because of something he’s done, and he does have a lot of affection and a protective streak for the few people he lets himself get close to.
He also fully aware that guilt and good intentions mean less than nothing.
The first half of the book goes back and forth between the present day and Ballard’s memories of discovering his magical talents at a very early age. I thought his back story was going to be all about neglect and abuse, but it really wasn’t. It was just crushing poverty, and family members who loved him and tried to teach him about responsibilities. None of it was enough to counter the impulse of an angry, hurting child with access to more power than most adults would know how to handle. What ends up happening is like every news story about a little kid who stumbles across a loaded gun; they don’t understand the horrible and – in Ballard’s case at least – unforgivable consequences of what they’re doing until it’s too late.
Ballard has a very good reason to believe he’s one of the damned.
If there’s one thing in Laytham’s favor it’s that there are people in the magical world who are a whole lot worse than him. Imagine police officers with access to technology that allows them to beat a prisoner almost to death, and then magically heal them so they can start all over. For weeks. Think about the worst atrocities in the world – genocide, war crimes, mass killings for any reason – and think about how much power demons and otherwise are rumored to give in return for blood sacrifices.
Of course if imagining all horrible things people can do with/because of supernatural influence is a little grim, you can always focus on the intricate world the author has created where magic can be adapted to work with anything. The book is filled with examples of the occult and the supernatural mixing in with the modern age, like temples of the Rat God of plagues and vermin masquerading as a popular children’s pizza franchise (the tokens are a substitute for sacrificial blood coins you know). There’s an offshoot of the Knights Templar working as protectors of the road in the guise of truck drivers, avatars of the faerie kingdom keep up with the latest video game releases, and some cell phone companies might be in league with the Elder Gods.
“I know a guy in L.A. who has developed an entire form of sympathetic magic through cell phones,” I said. “He’s a twittermancer – he can read your thoughts, control your actions, and know your secrets through your cell phone traffic. Of course his workings have to be a hundred and forty characters or less to work, but that keeps him on his toes.”
I loved any part of the book where Laytham could dazzle the reader with his ability to mess with technology, like being able to foil digital recognition software, or that weird thing that ink does when the police try to get his fingerprints. And since each magic user in the world has their own way of connecting with “The Life” as it’s called, that means there are thousands of wildly different ways of controlling the power they were born with, and an infinite number of things the characters can do with that power.
Ballard works through chakras and Latin, other people use religious ceremonies, or programming language, or drugs, or quotes from Harry Potter. Ballard’s friends include a 150-year-old Japanese Gun God who’s an unstoppable samurai with firearms (and who loves big-band music), a woman who’s a stunningly beautiful – and extremely dangerous – nightclub owner who used to be an unhappy Aboriginal boy in Australia, and a former IBM employee who uses LSD to surf the framework of the entire universe on a handmade quantum computer.
The main plot could be described as a mystery, although not one that the reader will be able to figure out ahead of time, since the author brings in new players and new bits of backstory with each chapter. It’s really more of a gradual unfolding of Ballard’s world and his history, with sex and love (and of course heartbreak), and violence and a hidden plot, and quite a few speeches about humanity mortgaging away their futures in order to chase a carrot being waived by people who have never known what it’s like to be hungry. (Belcher’s got an axe to grind about the wealthy 1% turning other human beings into wage slaves, oh yes he does.)
The ending is almost a deus ex machina (or a wannabe deux ex something, anyway) except that it doesn’t solve everything, and in fact it leaves Ballard with a great big problem that could take a whole extra book to resolve. At least I hope it will. R.S. Belcher is working on a sequel now, and there’s another interesting project in the works as well. Remember the descendants of the Knights of Templar I mentioned earlier? In addition to truck drivers, they also include bikers and RV drivers and a few select state troopers. They’re known as The Brotherhood of the Wheel, which also happens to be the name for the book the author has coming out next April. A whole new segment of this bizarre world to explore; I think I’m going to see if I can pre-order that one.