Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms

The Conclave of Shadows is the second book in Alyc Helms' Missy Masters series. You should definitely pick up & read the first book before you buy this one.

Picking up where the superbly fun, ultra-twisty The Dragons of Heaven left off, Missy tries to re-establish normality in her day-to-day life in San Francisco. Her alter ego, Mr Mystic, has been hiding from the press attention and the clutches of Argent, the western world's premier (capitalist, corporate) superhero organisation.

It is not to be. Her acquaintance Abby, who is an Argent hero, looks her up and drags her back into the spotlight. Meanwhile. San Francisco has been experiencing a series of increasingly powerful minor earthquakes, the supernatural protections that Lung Di had put in place to separate the worldly realm from others are crumbling, and her friends and family are all juggling competing interests and problems...

Conclave of Shadows affirms that Dragons of Heaven was not a fluke (not that anyone would ever think so). Alyc Helms really can write, and write very well indeed. Infused with wit and humour, filled with a fundamentally open and kindhearted warmth, this is the contemporary speculative fiction at its stylistic best. Contemporary, in that it features multicultural characters of various sexual orientations, women characters who are central to the story, and adversity which is not powered by pure villainy, but by conflicts of interest between complex individuals and entities that each try to be as good as they can, within their own moralities...

Is it just me, or is there a trend for (women) writers to write books that are a bit more huggy in recent times? I'm thinking Karen Lord, Becky Chambers, and now Alyc Helms. The Missy Masters series differs from Long Road to a Small Angry Planet and Best of All Possible Worlds in one key aspect: it mixes the huggy warmhearted approach to its characters and events with a big dollop of action adventuring. It's what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be, if it had just a little bit less testosterone...

This is not to say that Conclave of Shadows is perfect. The second half of the novel is a bit repetitive - it feels like a character in a video game having to pass level after level, battling a boss at the end of each stage. And, after all the twists of Dragons of Heaven, the number of major plot revelations in Conclave feels oddly subdued. The biggest obstacle to my own enjoyment of the book is that there are too many characters. I kept forgetting who's who, especially among the male side characters. Then again, that is a particular problem of mine: I keep forgetting who's who in the organisation I work for: I have a rubbish people memory.

That said, the series is definitely on my must-buy, must-preorder list from now on. Urban fantasy at its very best. It's on a par with Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, Daniel O'Malley's Checquy series, Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library and slightly superior to Chris Holm's Collector series. Thrilling, funny and fun. Go get it now!

Rating: 4/5

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