This was a book I picked up and set down again almost at once – right up until Kathy’s glowing review of the sequel over at Pages of the Vaulted Sky. Being a completest, I wasn’t going to read the sequel first, so I tracked down City of Lost Fortunes and sat down to give it another go.
I am so glad that I did!
This book is amazing! I can see why I didn’t get into it last time, though – the opening reads like a very typical urban fantasy, right down to the meeting with a long-avoided acquaintance in a run-down bar. Jude, our main character, is Cynical and Long-Suffering, and his unique ability – the magical power to find things which are lost – wasn’t close to enough to hold my interest in the face of that. I was braced to DNF the book again, expecting another male-matyr-dragged-reluctantly-back-to-magic plotline, probably with a whodunnit angle I would have no reason to care about.
And technically, that is what CoLF is – Jude has been out of the life since Hurricane Katrina screwed up his magic almost as badly as it hit his beloved city of New Orleans (the setting – we’ll get back to that), is confronted by an ex-friend who’s more than pissed that he’s been deliberately MIA for so long, and given a message by said ex-friend from someone he can’t ignore – a message that does indeed force him back into the magical scene.
But. But, but, but.
Look, I’m a total worldbuilding addict. But I also adore lush, descriptive writing, up to and including flamboyantly purple prose; I can’t stand a good story that’s been badly written, but I have read and greatly enjoyed meh stories whose authors have beautiful writing styles. I can put up with a lot if the writing is pretty, is what I’m saying. And Camps is nowhere near purple prose – don’t worry! – but it is rich and descriptive, which feels not just appropriate but actually necessary, given the subject matter and the setting: who wants to read about myths and terrors and wonders in that bare-bones bestseller-y writing style? (Darren Brown, James Patterson, I am looking at you.) How can you make New Orleans feel like New Orleans if you don’t worship the city with your words? New Orleans has grime, crime, and poverty – but its very name summons up images of decadence and sensuality, hedonism galore, and a long history of magic which thrills or terrifies, according to your own leanings. (Maybe both, if you’re sensible). Blunt, action-focused writing is not going to cut it when it’s New Orleans you’re writing about.
And that’s not what Camps gives us. His writing is gorgeous, his turns of phrase and eye for details a constant delight. Every sentence is like music, no matter what that sentence is actually about, and that’s what carried me through the standard-trope opening.
Which is all it needs to do, because once you’re past those first few pages, there’s no going back. For Jude or the reader.
Jude is summoned to, of all things, a poker game. A very private, very exclusive poker game. It’s not money, status, or charm that gets you a seat at this table –
CoLF has been compared to American Gods. I object to that: CoLF is so much better than AG. My issues with AG can wait for another day, but suffice to say that where AG is, at least superficially, about the conflict between the old gods and the new, CoLF is about the evolution of the divine – about the very nature of gods and magic, and how both change over time, and should change, need to change. AG feels like the chronicling of the death of an era; in CoLF, magic is alive and kicking, fierce and wondrous, and you’d better believe that the old gods aren’t going anywhere.
There’s so much I’d love to say about this aspect of the book, but I don’t think I can without spoiling too much, and really, discovering it for yourself is going to be so much better than any description or explanation I could give you. I do want to say that as a pagan and a total myth-geek, I wanted to hug this book to my chest and SHRIEK with happiness, not just at the portrayal of the various gods and supernatural creatures, but at what Camp says and does with the…the nature of mythology. That changeability I was talking about earlier. The inter-connectedness of myths and pantheons from all over the world. Divine archetypes and sharing names and swapping masks and roles. It’s wonderful.
(One reveal near the very end – one I saw coming, because of aforementioned myth-geekiness – actually struck very close to my heart. As mentioned above, I’m neopagan, and over the last few years I’ve been defining what I believe more and more. I can’t explain a lot of it here because it definitely constitutes a spoiler, but suffice to say, I saw my own ideas of the sacred reflected, and even directly portrayed, in this book. And that made me incredibly happy. I guess that’s something that won’t be relevant for most readers, but what is relevant is: even if you’re neopagan, you don’t need to be side-eyeing this book. All the gods and beings are portrayed well – I don’t mean that they’re all good; I mean that Bryan Camp has done his research, is clearly respectful of how meaningful so much of his subject matter has been to people in the past and still is to many people today, and infuses them with real wonder. I’ve never read another book with deities as characters that does it half so well.)
CoLF is, superficially, a whodunnit: a god has been murdered, and Jude has to find out the who and how and why. But it’s the why that is the focus of the book, that spirals out and out into something enormous and breath-taking and mesmerising. The murder itself is only the smallest part of the story, really; far more important are the layers and layers of intrigue, myth, and magic that underscore it. The motive is the story, because it’s not about the death, it’s about why someone thought that death was necessary. The game is so much bigger than poker – even one with souls and fates as the stakes – and is inextricably tied to the city, to the magical factions and politics within it, and to the nature of godhood. Camp’s magic feels like magic – this isn’t Rothfuss or Sanderson, whose magic is about as wondrous as a Maths equation*; there’s a price to every spell (often really inventive but appropriate ones!), and some things have rules, but this is the opposite of mundane. It’s mystical, otherworldly, taps into that spirit of magic most of us lost after childhood. And yet it’s modernised, too – Camp’s world is an incredible blending of the ancient and the new; there’s poker, but it’s played with tarot cards; hearts are weighed against feathers, but the realm of the dead is reached via streetcar; angels old as Creation convey messages from the Lord – via bluetooth.
CoLF is also a surprisingly queer book. Although the initial reveal of Jude’s bisexuality is so quick and subtle you’ll miss it if you blink, fluid sexuality and gender are defining themes of Jude’s personal arc, especially in the second half of the book. Jude is half-Trickster, and Camp emphasises over and over again that Tricksters give the finger to binaries of all kinds – right and wrong, black and white, male and female, straight and gay. Again, I can’t go into details without major spoilers, but my jaw dropped when A Thing happened in the last second/third of the book. It’s a major exploration of genderfluidity/genderqueerness, and Jude reacts in a way I’ve never seen a male character react – hells, I’ve never met a real-life man who would react as Jude does! And it’s a queer-positive reaction, btw, for anyone who might be concerned. It’s also not preachy: Camp’s commentary on gender, and Jude’s especially, and that of Tricksters in general, is there on the page – but shown instead of told. There’s no lectures to detract from the action. It’s just…wow. I loved it!
Speaking of action: this book does not stop. Without feeling rushed, there is just so much going on. At one point, I glanced at my e-reader, noticed I was only 37% through the book, and demanded (of the ether) what the hell else can happen?!
A lot. A LOT can happen! 37% of CoLF is packed full of more punch than most authors manage in a whole series of books.
I also appreciated the diversity of the cast. Jude himself has a white mother and passes for a Black man (he’s referred to as Black by most of the cast) but doesn’t actually have a clue what ethnicity he got from his (divine, remember) father. Most if not all of the major characters are Black, and race is important – one particular conversation stands out in my memory, when someone points out to Jude (as evidence of his inherited powers) you’re the only Black man I’ve ever seen who never gets stopped by the police. I’m paraphrasing – I seem to have forgotten to highlight the line on my reader; clearly I’m still a book-blogging newbie! – but it punched me in the gut. While racism isn’t very present – Jude’s magic gives him cover and the other characters are a bit too focused on the murdered god to be swapping stories about police harassment – race is, and it’s integral to each of the characters (as it should be). I can’t comment to the accuracy – I’m white – but it read powerfully to me.
Tl:dr: GO BUY THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. You won’t regret it!
*I know there are people who do find wonder in Maths, but most of us don’t – and forgive the pun, but Maths doesn’t have the indefinable x-factor of magic. Magic is beyond definition, defies explanation. That why it’s magic. Maths is all about definition and explanation. There’s beauty in that, if you’re the kind of person who can see it – I’m not – but it’s not magic.