Blood Engines, by T.A. Pratt. Bantam Spectra, 2007.
Once again, I feel a bit late with this review, but I only just discovered Blood Engines and meant to pick up a copy for some time. It was the gorgeous cover by Don Dos Santos, in fact, that first drew me to the book--it's rare to see a cover that so enigmatically and skilfully captures the characters inside, but the image with Marla in the foreground and Rondeau lurking (or lounging?) behind is sheer perfection.
Marla Mason is in charge of Felport, and as sorcerers go, she's pretty much the baddest-ass of them all. Ruthless, calculating, powerful, yet ethical in her own weird Kantian way, Marla weaves an intricate net of push-and-pull in order to maintain her city. While most urban fantasy centers on a young character just coming into her powers--or a more experienced character who's about to get more powerful in order to defeat some faceless evil--Pratt's novel does the opposite by presenting a character who's already at the top of the food chain. For those Dragonlance fans out there, Marla is like a female version of Raistlin Majere, complete with deadly magical artifacts and a whole lot moral relativism. She doesn't have that "I'll defeat you because you're wrong" intrinsic goodness of so many urban heroines. Instead, she does what she has to, when it has to be done.
Joining Marla is Rondeau, her sidekick, who happens to be a millenia-old psychic parasite, possibly from another dimension, who took over the body of a street kid years ago. I presume that Poison Sleep might explain why, exactly, Marla felt it was necessary to rip out Rondeau's jawbone and use it as a scrying tool, since no satisfactory explanation is given in Blood Engines. But that's really part of the novel's immense charm. Pratt's cadre of sorcerers are really, really...not human. Their minds are faceted, deadly, and strange. Their powers are unexpected and ornate. We get to meet body-swapping Celestials, cannibal witches with forked tongues, techno-wizards with "heavy astral clones," and even a pornomancer who can turn himself into a bear (when he's not busy having raunchy ectoplasmic sex). These mofos are seriously not human, and meeting each one of them is sheer delight, so much so that I found myself ignoring the Apocalypse-plot after a while and just looking forward to anticipating what the next power-player would be like.
The end-of-the-world plot, in fact, is one of my only gripes with the novel. There's so much fabulous ornamentation within Pratt's world, you can get distracted by all the pretty, deadly, and downright weird things. But the Big Bad itself is really kind of...meh. After seeing Marla don her cloak of purple death, it's hard to be scared of anything else. And that cloak--I'm not really sure what to say about it. Marla seems terrifying in her own right. Does she actually need couture that makes her immune to magic, super-strong, blindingly fast, etc? This was my only other crit with Blood Engines. At times, we get a lot of description about how much of a badass Marla is, and the third-person POV makes it seem a bit like a comic-book origin piece. I can appreciate the creativity that's gone into crafting Marla's fascinating origins, but seeing her be a badass is far more effective than hearing about it.
What I liked so much about the beginning of Blood Engines was that it threw me into a power-struggle between two female sorcerers, both equals. I won't give away the ending, but this kernel of the story shifts and changes a great deal. I'm not sure I was entirely cool with the resolution, but damn, the story was a blast to read! There were moments of undeniable brilliance, and passages that made me think, why couldn't I have written that? Rondeau deserves a book all to himself, as a character who starts out charmingly in the background but quickly becomes Marla's foil, colleague, and confidante.
The plotting, story-telling, and descriptive mechanics are all top-drawer, and Pratt's obvious interest in hard science makes the read even more fascinating. In future books, I wouldn't mind seeing a kind of female counterpart to B's character--that is, a woman who isn't, like Marla, a preternaturally powerful sorcerer, but rather just complicated, interesting, and kind. And what about the sexy? Even Marla should be able to get laid in San Francisco, not just Rondeau. Put the damn dagger of office away for a few hours and have some fun!
I'd recommend Blood Engines without hesitation to just about any fantasy-lover, urban, epic, steampunk, whatever. Trust me. You'll like it. Buy it from Amazon.