Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ex Libris: Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski

First of all, congratulate me for I have come up with a new word that is all-powerful: the fantasy techno-thriller!

Which this book is, if ever Tom Clancy ever decided to write urban fantasy. I came up with this word after reading Zielinski's rather kick-ass book, Bad Magic (2004), about an oddball group of good guys running an underground cell in San Francisco against the big bad guys (which is a lot: evil gods, demons, undead, etc.) running the world-- well, San Diego at the least. In other words, these are the conspiracy kook's own lovable heroes: they don't drink the local water and prefer bourbon.

Obviously, the story's concept is nothing new: there are evil forces out there and it's up to those who know to combat them. However, this is the first book I've seen wherein the protagonists are outnumbered-- but the rest of the world is normal. Where else can you see the good guys describe themselves as the Opposition and the bad guys as the Incumbents? Apocalypse isn't happening because the bad guys want to maintain the status quo.

THE GOOD NEWS: You've got a bunch of characters with different abilities but seemingly straight out of a Glen Cook Black Company novel: one is a thaumaturge who came over from the dark side; an anthropologist/archaeologist who can shoot straight; an elementalist witch; an undead 3-foot dwarf who is Voodoo big; a Geoduck Clam totemist with connections to the guerrilla HQ in Seattle, a naval electronics analyst/ leader of the group; a German alchemist with a penchant for big bikes; and an avenging Angel of Death reminiscent of Lamont Cranston's The Shadow (good grief, he carries two guns but he cries instead of laughs!).

However, like Cook, Zielinski forgoes character depth and goes for the witty wisecrack and the sarcastic rejoinder (never knew how funny the simple "Fuck you!" can be). Combine this with the book's charged-up pace, a Harlan Ellison-esque choppy prose combined with the usage of present tense, and you'll feel like you're being driven by a hopped-up New York taxi driver elaborating on his latest conspiracy theory-- not that I've experienced such a thing, mind.

“If one were a Vulture cultist, shivering in the dark and out of bullets, perhaps the last thing one would want to hear at this juncture is the Cal band’s arrangement of “Time Warp”. Quite a tune. Get your Rocky Horror soundtrack and put it on; try to imagine a marching band performing it with verve and panache, brass bells snapping back and forth."

THE BAD NEWS: Zielinski, for all that he can keep the plot swinging despite the characters running around the whole place and the quiet spots in the narrative, CANNOT WRITE AN ENDING. As simple as that: he keeps raising the bar, setting up a climactic battle in the streets of San Francisco, throwing in an army of zombie programmers arriving on a train from hell, armed leather-clad lesbians, a Cal Tech band playing songs in the middle of a firefight, a night jump by repentant vampire thralls, as well as a dolphin mage whose totem is Man and a dragon who snacks on walruses here and there.

“For additional realism, have somebody dynamite your house, not neglecting worming thrills of light as thaumaturgy shreds what little cover is left. Throw in an archaeologist with a light machine gun braced against an Oldsmobile; season with a bald synesthetic mage shoving vulture feathers into a railway torch and thereby setting your clothes ablaze. Then try to find a retreat and fail to find one. You should probably skip the denouement, though, unless you have a thing about having you neck wrung.”

And when the battle is fierce, and the good guys confront the bad guys-- Zielinski drops the ball. I swear, I would have thrown it against a wall if not for the fact that I really, really liked this book.

Unfortunately, this seems to be Zielinski's only published book, which is sad because despite Bad Magic's major flaw, I'd still want to re-read this book someday. For one who has a to-be-read pile in the hundreds, that's a pretty good recommendation. (Rating: 3 paws out of 4)

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