The Facefaker's Game by Chandler J Birch
Billed as being perfect for fans of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, Chandler J Birch's debut novel, The Facefaker's Game is indeed a pretty exciting prospect for us fantasy lovers - a story about an earnest beggar boy who sets out to right some wrongs in his grimy ramshackle-rundown neighborhood with the help of his newly learned 'magic' skills, this premise should definitely strum your heart-strings as a reader looking for the next big thing after Locke Lamora. Add to the entertaining mix, an elegantly detailed magical system, some charming roguish protagonists, a grim-dark world full of danger and mysteries galore, all in the backdrop of a Charles Dickensian society; quite the potent mix for a good fantasy story. So while not quite in the league of a Locke Lamora or even Kvothe, the charming fourteen year-old Ashes, the main 'hero' of the narrative will definitely win hearts - for his intensely good-nature that leads him into all sorts of trouble, trying to set things right by his narrow conscience. He is clever but not terribly cunning, he is resourceful but not entirely talented when it comes to sticky situations. And of course, there is this secret about his past-life & capabilities that forms, sort of the hook into probably what is the rest of the series, wherein hopefully we get to see more character-development for sure.
Chandler builds out the neighborhood of Burroughside set in a corner of the large city of Temaris, as this tiny but nasty hovel full of gangs of thieves and no-gooders, where the price of life is cheap and the night-fall and shadows brings with it, dangers galore - blood-thirsty creatures akin to the undead or zombies called 'Ravagers' that lurk in the dark and have a penchant for a taste of the human flesh. There is competition between gangs and thus, a lot of tension - and right up from the first chapter, Chandler beautifully brings out this conflict and the knife-edge that Ashes has to walk in this tough neighborhood. Great hook, I knew I was going to love this story!
The social hierarchy within Temaris is a bit confusing - with different levels of 'privileged' classes like the Denizens and the Ivorish - and of course, the bottom of the pile with hapless have-nots like Ashes and others. So an interesting tidbit served up that piqued my curiosity was that folks like Ashes are called 'rasas' - kids found in the streets without any prior memory of their birth or past life. Hopefully a mystery for the longer-run, this.
Ashes, the fourteen-year old boy is isn't too strong nor is he part of any powerful gangs in his district. But he is clever and a whiz at thinking on his feet, saving himself many a purple bruise purely by virtue of his silver tongue more than once. And to top it off, ever since he's broken off his affiliation from any of the 'bruiser' gangs that roam the neighborhood, he's taken on the additional responsibility of providing for this younger boy, Blimey - whom he's taken on as his local ward. The only complication being, the local governor of this district, Mr. Ragged - a sort of Beggar-Lord whom everybody else pays their 'tithes' to - wants Blimey dead.
With his penchant for gambling and fast hands, Ashes heads to the streets outside of Burroughside - and takes to cheating the 'Denizens' with his card skills. But one chance encounter puts him under the lens of Candlestick Jack, an Artificer or magician who can manipulate light - who takes a fancy to Ashes and takes him under his own tutelage - as an apprentice. Jack - and his company of "artificers" however, are in the game for something much more valuable. Ashes soon discovers that his master's company are in fact, training and preparing for some grand heists - against their 'Ivorish' lords and counterparts in the shining cities.
While the preparations for this grand heist and Ashes's training takes up much of the narrative, a parallel one details how Ashes, a morally upright boy whose conscience doesn't allow to him standby and let the bullies rule the street or the crooked rule the oppressed, wants to take revenge against the evil beggar-lord. It's pretty evenly paced - but I did feel that after the initial world is set, characters all introduced and when we get snared deeper into the "magical" training and the heist/revenge-drama, the initial fire and excitement slowly ebbed away. The Dickensian feel to the world was very subtly done - in terms of the dresses, the language nuances between the 'cultured' high-class Ivorish and the have-nots, brought up in poverty. A nice nod to this world building is Blimey's fascination for 'books' and how he tries to teach Ashes, a new word or two everyday from his books. There is this urgent "anything-can-happen" feel to the story as it progresses - but unfortunately, when we get to the parts of the training, there are a lot of details about the extensive and delightful magical system that slows things down. Just like Brandon Sanderson, Chandler lets his readers dive deep unto the roots of his well-thought-out magic - about light manipulation and the different types of 'artifice' that one can perform with the light, making it feel authentic and an integral part of the story itself.
Ashes himself is a lovable charming boy. A tad bit stubborn and even foolish in his choices but Ashes has got his heart in his right place. He is loyal to a fault, exceedingly cautious having to live out his days in fear inside Burroughside, he is still resourceful and there is that sort of zingy Joie de verve about him that makes his chapters, a pleasure to read. An uncanny sense of scope and surprise colors his escapades - be it the fear-filled flight from ravagers or the heady, naive and bungling efforts to scare up the bigger bullies with the use of Artifice. The side characters as well, are all nicely fleshed out and extremely relatable. I personally loved Jack, Ashes' mentor. Jack and Ashes' banter is delightful, funny and felt natural - and while Jack has his own set of secrets, his fascination with Ashes leads them both into many tricky and 'hair-rising' situations. Someone that I just couldn't get enough of, was of course Blimey - the boy whose life Ashes saved, his obsession with books, chess and who himself, is a rasa. Being the over-protective big-brother figure to Blimey, Ashes doesn't want to let Blimey out on the streets but I think, as the series proceeds, we will get to hear more about him. There are quite a few more interesting characters in this book like Synder, the genius-apprentice of Jack, or the mysterious Lady who rules the other crime-lords in Temaris with an iron hand.
My only complaint about the book, would perhaps be the lack of pay-offs at the end of book-one. There are quite a few unanswered questions the readers are left with - and also, in the grand scheme of things, while the original plot-line around Ashes' revenge against Mr. Ragged is interesting, it by itself seemed pretty restrictive and limiting in its scope. There are hints thrown about - for some larger mystery at stake with the political drama and intrigue of the guild of Artificers and Ivorish Lords but we don't get to see where that leads.
But all in all, an extremely delightful debut for fantasy lovers, Facefaker's Game gives us a zany protagonist whose quicksilver tongue and deft hands may not just be his greatest assets - and a well fleshed out magic system readers can sink their teeth into and an intriguing world, that I suspect, is only partially revealed in this first outing, the shining lights of the Temaris city has a lot to hide. Lovers of fantasy and adventure, this new book by Chandler J Birch should be high up on your reading list.