Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Palace Job - Patrick Weekes

The Palace Job is the first in a series by Patrick Weekes. It centres on Loch, a woman wrongfully (or at least inaccurately) imprisoned, as she escapes, forms a crew of reprobates, and sets out to perform an elaborate and improbable heist. It’s fast, it’s fun, and in places, it has a  hefty emotional impact.

The world has elements familiar to fantasy readers – unicorns, deities active in the world, wizards, that sort of thing – but fuses them together in some interesting new ways. The focus of the text is really the characters and the action, but Weekes manages to give his world enough layers that it has a feeling of depth, as well as geography. There’s the various different clerics who get together to play a poker game. There’s an Empire, waiting in the wings, which seems to be a veiled socio-political threat to the republic where we spend our time. There’s some excellent news-cast style narratives by puppeteers, keeping the population and the reader abreast with political events.

Then there’s the actual politics. Again, it’s more visible around the edges than explicitly covered, but it’s there. There’s two parties struggling for control in the Republic, and at least one has some rather odd goals. This feel of political struggle is backed by references to a war in the recent past – and the feel of being on a tipping point, of preventing or falling back into a huge conflict, is an undercurrent throughout the narrative. There’s a lot of other interesting bits as well – the suggestion that most magical artefacts were created by the “Ancients” – including one which serves as, amongst other things, a spectacular floating prison. The  internal mythologies about the end of the Ancients and the rise of the current civilisations – it’s all obviously been thought about, it’s all internally consistent, and it leaves the reader with a complex and vibrant world.

The characters…well, Loch is the protagonist, if you like. But a large portion of the narrative is her putting together a team for a heist.  Acquiring each member of the team is played as a separate narrative, and they’re all highly entertaining. She ends up with a pretty large collection of rapscallions, including a disreputable wizard, a Death priestess, a rather cranky safe-breaker, and a host of other weird and wonderful personalities.  Weekes does a good job here  of making each member of the team feel distinct, with their own quirks, and absolutely each with their own agenda.  Some get a little more time than others – the irascible, morally dubious wizard, who takes a more na├»ve member of the team under his wing absolutely steals every scene he’s in – but they’re all charming to read about, and utterly intriguing individuals. Loch, as the nominal protagonist, manages to project an image of calm competence over a slow-brewing anger which is a delight to see on the page. She also manages to wrangle her herd of dysfunctional goats..er..team members…in the right direction, without compromising on who she is, and what their goals actually are.

Plot-wise, well, there’s a prison break. And planning and executing a heist. The book opens strongly with Loch’s efforts to get out of prison, demonstrating the kind of intricate, double bluff plotting that carries through the rest of the text. The pacing is spot on, and the dialogue is plausible and eminently readable. There’s a bit of a lull as she begins gathering her team, but the various situations in which they’re recruited are entertaining, and there’s some solidly tense moments laced through that phase.

The heist itself, in planning and execution, feels like it’s taken a lot of lessons from films like Ocean’s Eleven – it’s fast-paced, it’s tense, and it’s absolutely relentless. It’s also an extremely compulsive read as a result – I was entirely unwilling to put the book down until I saw what happened.

Overall, it’s a solid read. We don’t see a lot of heist-type fantasy novels, and this one is particularly good, if you’re in that particular mood. I would like to see more exploration of the supporting cast, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Weekes' world in later books – but overall this is a snappy and interesting read.

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