Thursday, 31 December 2015

Charlie Fletcher: The Oversight

The Oversight is a book I wanted to like, while knowing it was essentially corny. This now, I should be clear, is what I was thinking before I started reading it. It’s a book about magical guardians of reality, and there are orphans in peril and novices to be adopted into the brotherhood and ominous backstory, and gaslight and such as. I am a sucker for anything which mixes gaslight and magic, because Tim Powers did it so well and I keep hoping someone else can do it too. And also because magic has been stuck in the middle ages for far too long.

So The Oversight has been sitting in the queue for a while because I liked the idea in principle, but I was worried that it might misfire in practice, and there were all kinds of other books I felt like reading first. Many of which turned out to be terrible, but the thing about reading something which you know is terrible is that, yes, you’ve wasted your time, but at least you’re not grappling with disappointment as well.

The Oversight is not a disappointing book. It’s not as well written as it thinks it is (when you can tell that a book thinks it’s well-written, it’s still got some learning to do; as Elmore Leonard said, discard anything which feels like writing), but it’s well written by the standards of the genre. And the set-up is exactly as corny as I thought it would be; there’s a magical police force down on its uppers, hemmed about on all sides by the bad guys. There’s a circus. There are children - well, teenagers - in peril. There are magical archetypes and supporting characters so broad you’d think the pages would bulge.

And it all works anyway. The main characters make sense, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them. And Fletcher managed to maintain a creepy tension throughout the book, putting his cast into peril and keeping them there until I was dreading the next chapter. He’s written a book which gives you the feeling that no-one is safe, and that getting killed could be the least of your worries. 

Perhaps most importantly, given that this is going to be a trilogy, there’s a good mix of cliff hanger and back story on display. The book ends with a good chunk of the cast still in play, and many of them in well over their heads. The “let’s tell the newbie how the world works.” element of the backstory isn’t too heavy handed, and better yet, there’s a good excuse for it. It’s one of the better approaches I’ve seen to the usual “hero who knows nothing saves the world” trope, and it feels thought out rather than just the usual narrative convenience of using the protagonist as a way to explain the world.

All in all, it’s solid stuff. The sequel’s out, but if I come at the rest of the trilogy at the same speed I’ve used up to now, I’ll be reading the last two books in one big lump sometime late next year.

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