I have been reading a lot of heavy, "serious" works lately, works that employ a large cast of characters to deal with issues on a big, even epic scale. And while many of these works have been upbeat, some of them have also been "downers." So I thought it was time to read something lighter. Coincidentally, a new Raine Benares book came out in April, and it happened to be sitting on my shelf.
The levity of Lisa Shearin's writing is exactly what I wanted. Con & Conjure definitely has high stakes and serious issues: the narrator, Raine, is psychically-bonded to a rock called the Saghred. The Saghred feeds on souls, and in return it grants its wielders immense magical power. Unfortunately it also drives people insane. Raine, as the only link to the Saghred, is a tempting target for several powerful factions. In particular, a goblin sorcerer who was once trapped inside the Saghred wants it back, and a faction of elves led by Taltek Balmorlan want to use Raine as an excuse to start a goblin-elf war. The situation is tense, and assassination attempts on a rogue goblin prince who wants peace don't make it any better.
Despite the gravity of the situation, however, Raine's narration is delightfully flip. Shearin's world is full of epic fantasy tropes: sorcerers, soul-stealing rocks, goblins, elves, etc. Yet the novels take place in urban fantasy environments. (Sometimes this lead to use of language I might consider questionable—is "green" really an appropriate metonym for money if everyone still uses gold as currency?) The Isle of Mid, the setting since the second book, resembles a city-state of Renaissance Italy, if Florence or Venice were controlled by a conclave of elven mages. Shearin sends Raine ducking down alleys, weaving through crowds along the docks, hiding in brothels, and getting into barfights. All the while, Raine is describing the action with her characteristic wit and sarcasm. In short, Con & Conjure, like all of the Raine Benares books, is fun. In fact, while it's not the best book I've read all year, this is probably the most fun I've had reading a book so far this year. I suspected that would be the case when I started reading it, and Shearin has not disappointed me.
I love stories with con games and heist movies. These fall into a category of deception that appeals to me because they, especially con games, are very cerebral efforts. One defeats one's enemy, the mark, by winning a battle of wits, by utterly devastating him or her but leaving him or her alive to suffer the humiliation. Then there is the adrenaline of not knowing if or when the con will fall apart and leave the characters in danger. This combination of deception and suspense is attractive, dare I say even sexy. Hence my love for The Lies of Locke Lamora and movies like Ocean's Eleven and Foolproof.
So I was excited by the prospect of watching Raine pull off a con with the help of her cousin Mago. Unfortunately, Shearin pulls a Scott Lynch on us. Like Red Seas Under Red Skies, the promised con soon gets sublimated beneath ancillary action, fading into the gentle night to become a secondary plot. Though there is still plenty of deception, with Raine and her enemies both using glamours to assume various identities, the intricate test of wits that I had been anticipating was, alas, not to be.
Still, there was going to be a con, and I guess that's what matters. It just fell apart much earlier than most con games do. Instead, Raine finds herself in a series of increasingly untenable positions, at one point having several warrants out for her apprehension. And she can't just lie low, because she has to find out who is trying to kill Prince Chigaru and steal the Saghred. Raine has never, ever been the kind of person to sit on the sidelines—and the other characters are finally starting to figure this out! There is a lot less, "No, you aren't coming with us," in Con & Conjure, especially from Mychael. I find this absence most gratifying, because in the previous books it killed the pacing unnecessarily: it is pretty obvious that Raine is going to come along. She is, after all, our narrator and kickass heroine. Similarly, I appreciate that Shearin did not inject some simmering jealousy or resentment between Mychael and Raine after the former learns that one of the assassins gunning for Prince Chigaru is Raine's ex-fiancée.
The stakes for Raine have seldom been higher. Well, OK, that's not strictly true … I guess attempting to prevent the release of a demon king and trying to stop an evil goblin sorcerer from regenerating are pretty high stakes. But now we're talking war, racial war between the goblins and the elves. And both sides wouldn't mind getting their hands on the Saghred. The easiest way to do that is to get their hands on Raine, through whom they can sacrifice souls to the Saghred. Yes, through her.
Since Balmorlan revealed that plan, complete with magic-sapping manacles, to a glamour-disguised Raine, I kept having these flashes—the kind you get teased with during trailers for "next week's episode"—of Raine on a cell wall, defeated. (Of course, with most such episode trailers, what they don't show you is the immediately subsequent triumphant escape.) I won't reveal whether Balmorlan actually makes good on his threat to imprison Raine, but there are several times when she is in imminent danger of losing control, either over herself or over the Saghred. There is a very chilling scene where Raine lets loose and lets the Saghred mete out some well-deserved destruction on people we consider bad guys. And the climax of Con & Conjure might be my favourite; I like it even better than The Trouble with Demons, which up to this point has been my favourite Raine Benares book. While the climax is both much faster and on a smaller scale in this book—no epic demon battles—it's a lot more emotionally poignant. We get a guest appearance from Sarad Nukpana, and Shearin expertly manoeuvres Raine into a position where, despite her best efforts, she is on the cusp of losing everything. More impressively, Shearin goes ahead and deals Raine and our protagonists a setback that, while not wholly surprising, definitely alters the balance of power in favour of the bad guys. And it sets up the next book.
So Con & Conjure is a satisfying story filled with action, even if it doesn't quite deliver the confidence game I was expecting from the title. Shearin knows how to pace her scenes—trite phrases like "action-packed thrill ride" and "never a dull moment" come to mind, and they would be accurate. Unfortunately, Con & Conjure, like the other books in the series, share with thrillers a dearth of strong characterization. Though all of Shearin's characters are delightfully depicted and very amusing, they are, with the exception of Raine herself, rather two-dimensional. And again, we have the dichotomy where the protagonists universally love Raine and the antagonists consist of snivelling bad guys who whine when they don't get their way. Judging from the setup for the next book, this will not always be the case, as Raine and company will get a reluctant ally to help them take on Sarad Nukpana once and for all.
But that flaw is just so minor compared to the heart of the book—indeed, of the series: Raine herself. She is one of my favourite protagonists and favourite first-person narrators I've ever encountered. It's not just her voice; it's the way she has changed over the past five books, and the way she bears her singular burden. She is the only one bonded to the Saghred; she can feel the enmity radiating off the stone. She feels its desire to consume souls and escape its prison. And always there is the threat looming over her that she will cross the line, succumb to the lure of the Saghred's power, and essentially go insane and give herself up to it. Then there would be no Raine, just the Saghred and a nice, mobile bond servant to go procure soul snacks. That would be bad for everyone.
Though the threat has been real and present in all of the previous books, it's especially palpable here. Raine keeps running into scenarios where she has no good choices: if she doesn't use the Saghred, everyone dies; if she uses the Saghred, she gets one step closer to losing herself. And when she puts it that way, the choice seems rather obvious, but it's still a little heartbreaking. Once again, Shearin uses the magic of literature to distort our sense of time: Raine has grown so much since we first met her in Magic Lost, Trouble Found, even though only a month or two has passed since she bonded with the Saghred.
I wish I could say the other characters were half as interesting as Raine. As in the previous books, while they are amusing, the rest of the cast is rather two-dimensional—and we again have all the protagonists loving Raine and all the antagonists consisting of snivelling bad guys who whine when they don't get their way. Judging from the setup for the next book, this will not always be the case, as Raine and company will get a reluctant ally to help them take on Sarad Nukpana once and for all.
Con & Conjure, while an improvement over the previous book, Bewitched & Betrayed, hasn't really altered my opinion of this series. But that is fine, because my opinion thus far has been pretty damn high: I like this series, and while it has its faults, Shearin's books have always been fun and satisfying to read. That level of consistency is difficult to maintain and deserves a great deal of admiration. And if you like witty fantasy adventures, soul-stealing rocks, or kickass female heroines, then you should read these books.