Bookburners, Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty &Brian Francis Slattery (Saga 978-1481485579, $34.99, 800pp, hc) January 2017.
Let’s talk about Bookburners: Season 1, the first online serial narrative launched by Serial Box Publications, now coming to bookshelves in paper versions, care of Saga Press. (Season 2 has already launched electronically, and may even be complete by the time this review sees press.) I read it in an afternoon’s sitting, because I couldn’t put it down.
Bookburners was created by Max Gladstone, author of the acclaimed Craft Sequence novels. For season one, its creative team encompasses Gladstone himself, television and transmedia writer Margaret Dunlap – most recently one of the minds behind the award-winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries – novelist and podcaster Mur Lafferty, and writer Brian Francis Slattery, whose Lost Everything won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012. That’s a roster full of heavily talented individuals. The team effort, as one might expect, reflects the calibre of the contributors.
Serial narrative, I said: I think overall Bookburners Season 1 might top 200,000 words, but it reaches that total in 16 novelette-to-short-novella-length episodes. Structurally, then, it’s a lot more like a television show than a serial novel – as it’s intended to be. A supernatural copshow/caper/spies and intrigue television show, with added complicated team dynamics.
Sal (Sally, but she goes by Sal) Brooks is an NYPD detective. In Bookburners’s first episode, she discovers that magic is real and that a demon has possessed her brother Perry. She also stumbles into a Vatican-backed black ops anti-magic team, Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum, AKA the Bookburners. She, and they, tangle with the demon that’s possessing Perry. When Sal survives, they offer her a job. Because magic might be real, but it’s also pretty hungry, and while it might be trapped – contained – in texts and artefacts, there’s always the risk it’ll break free – or someone will set it free – and set off something really bad. Like, for example, a magical apocalypse.
Any good long-form narrative, especially a serial one, lives or dies on its core cast of characters. Bookburners is no different, and fortunately, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint.
Sal Brooks is the main character: the American and the rookie thrust headlong into an international world of intrigue and magic, struggling to figure out what others take for granted and burdened with the guilt of surviving when her brother’s in a magical (demon-induced) coma. The role of ‘‘character to whom all this is new’’ does place certain constraints upon Sal, especially in the initial episodes, and it feels to me as though she takes quite a long time to develop a distinctive personality beyond ‘‘suspicious cop with magic-related trauma.’’
She develops one eventually. Meanwhile, the reader is kept busy alongside her trying to figure out the rules of this strange new world of magic and demons – and Sal’s new teammates.
Sal’s new teammates are interesting. They all have something tragic (and magic-related) in their pasts. There’s Father Arturo Menchú, once a parish priest in Guatemala, now the head of Team Three: he blames himself for a magic-related tragedy in his former parish and has a complicated relationship with the Vatican hierarchy, the rest of the teams of the Societas Librorum Occultorum, and the cardinal set over the society. There’s Liam, a skilled hacker, an extremely religious – if unconventional – lay brother who was himself once possessed and only rescued by the Bookburners, and who is constantly full of guilt over his possession and terror about becoming possessed again. (He and Sal become lovers, briefly. Thanks to his guilt and tendency to – metaphorically – self-flagellate, it doesn’t last.) There’s Asanti, whose family comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Father Arturo’s equal – in some respects in Team Three, his superior. She’s their archivist and librarian and something like chief intelligence officer, and she alone of the Bookburners believes that magic should be studied: carefully, with appropriate safeguards, not merely locked away.
Then there’s Grace, originally from China, the team’s practically indestructible muscle: her story may be the most tragic (and interesting) of the whole team, and her no-holds-barred give-no-fucks personality makes her maybe the character I enjoy reading the most. (Sal’s inveterate curiosity leads her to pry inappropriately and uncover Grace’s secrets, eventually – you wouldn’t think that would lead to them becoming fast friends, but it does, and it works.)
Having an international magic-fighting team run out of the Vatican works as a conceit: more than works, considering how old the Catholic Church is, how many pies it’s had its fingers in over the years, and how many secrets and how much corruption its organisation contains. Sal comes up hard against the realisation that the job she’s just taken doesn’t make her one of the white hats so much as it firmly puts her in a really grey moral area – for Team Three might be decent people, but the same’s not necessarily true for Team Two. Or Team One, whose speciality is killing things. And people.
The season builds towards its long arc and awful revelations much as a television show does. The first few episodes keep the themes of the longer arc in the background, letting the reader get used to the characters and the world in a series of explosively entertaining instalments. There are tornado-eating monsters. There’s a yacht slowly being eaten by strange black goo. There are tattoos that magically kill people, and the Oracle at Delphi. There’s a European magic market when the Bookburners really aren’t the biggest, baddest players in town… and where we start to see the season-long secrets and dangers begin to make their way home to roost.
My favourite episode has to be ‘‘Shore Leave,’’ which I can’t help but think of as Sal and Grace’s Excellent Day Out, in which Grace takes a rare day off in Rome, Sal gets drunk, and a magical artefact in a clockmaker’s workshop causes time to run peculiar and strange. Well, that and the final two episodes of the season. There is a pretty epic showdown at the climax.
Bookburners is pretty epic, actually. Across the length of season one, it has the beats and the emotional tenor of an epic fantasy crossed with a procedural, and somehow it manages to make it work. Sal’s initial blandness as a character aside, the writing is high-quality, and the writing team maintains a strong and coherent voice across all 16 episodes in season one.
While season one doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it does have a hell of a sequel hook. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in season two….