O Death, where is thy sting? Once, you were a creature of pure existential terror, looming over kings and peasants alike in your black cowl, your bony fingers clutching the scythe that one day will cut all our cords. But now your son has taken over, and the boy needs a good talking to, as he's no better than any petulant brat with a sense of entitlement and a chip on his shoulder. Granted, he is Death and all. But at least you held the office with some sense of dignity and respect for your grim duty.
Tim Pratt is back with his third novel of Marla Mason, sorceress-in-chief of the fictitious rust-belt town of Felport. And it's not only just as good as the others, it shores up the case that Pratt is arguably producing some of the few truly worthwhile stories in the overcrowded and overhyped urban fantasy genre apart from Jim Butcher himself.
And he's got Butcher outclassed in the originality department. After all, even the venerable Harry Dresden series can't seem to get away from trotting out the usual stock players in the paranormal repertory: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies. Pratt isn't above the odd undead revenant or three. But he has, in his first two books, treated us to ancient Aztec frog gods that want to eat the universe, and a mad girl whose dreams intrude upon reality. See? All it takes is a teensy amount of imagination — and fantasy is supposed to be a genre of the imagination, is it not, not a genre of following the dots — to make this stuff something gloriously other than utterly boring. But I guess imagination is as hard to come by for some folks as disposable income these days.
Here, as you might have surmised, our guest villain is Death. Or rather, the new kid on the chopping block, the Walking Death, new god of the underworld. Why is he in Felport? Well, after Marla busts a necromancer for illicitly plying his trade in a local cemetery, trying to raise himself a zombie slave or two, the indignant mage conjures the spell in secret after blackmailing the lich Viscarro into providing him with a mummy. Not only does Ayres, the necromancer, raise the mummy (none other than that of John Wilkes Booth), but his ritual opens a passageway into the underworld, and the Walking Death walks right through.
Ayres, whose most ardent desire is to be the greatest necromancer ever, sees a chance to gain Death's favor. Though not exactly impressed, Death amuses himself by agreeing to grant Ayres' wish if Ayres can recover Death's long-lost sword, which, like Phil Pullman's Subtle Knife, can cut through anything. Ayres is in luck: the sword just happens to be in Marla's possession, disguised as a dagger, which seems to make about as much sense as a Colt .45 disguising itself as a snub-nosed .38.
When Marla naturally refuses to relinquish the weapon (it cannot be taken, must be given), Death decides to play rough and banishes her from Felport. After teleporting Marla out of the city limits and magically preventing her not only from re-entering but even contacting anyone she knows in town, Death gets it into his head that it would be fun to take over the city, not to demolish it, but in fact to run it better than she ever could. Death sets about winning over the loyalty of the sorcerers who are Marla's subjects. While some stay loyal and others join up with Death at varying degrees of enthusiasm, Marla's right-hand man Rondeau goes into hiding and plots how to make life hard for Death as long as he stays. And Marla? Well, if she can't go into Felport, there may be one place she can go. And it's a crazy enough plan that it just might work...or be the death of her.
And with that, Pratt is off and running once again in a fast-paced, suspenseful, and often breathlessly funny adventure. The series' sense of humor fires on all cylinders here, as Death finds Marla's job a bit more of a handful than he originally expected. And our stake in the fate of our heroine is solidified as her plan — the only one she can think of — sends her on a truly phantasmagoric journey that finds her confronting the myriad unfinished business of her past, and which leads to a dramatic change in her future. If there are any quibbles, it's that you expect a lot more in the way of fireworks at the climax than you get. Though it must be said that the way the story does end follows logically from what leads to it. In all, another killer entry in a fierce and funny urban fantasy series that's sure to knock you dead.