I first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.
From the book jacket: “Beka Cooper is a rookie with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard, and she’s been assigned to the Lower City. It’s a tough beat that’s about to get tougher, as Beka’s limited ability to communicate with the dead clues her in to an underworld conspiracy. Someone close to Beka is using dark magic to profit from the Lower City’s criminal enterprises–and the result is a crime wave the likes of which the Provost’s Guard has never seen before.”
As much as I like fantasy, I’d never read any Tamora Pierce before. Just as well, since I understand that this book is a bit of a departure from her usual stories in style and setting (though it takes place in the same universe as some of her other books). I was prepared for this to be somewhat formulaic and ordinary–the book jacket description, after all, doesn’t give credit to Ms. Pierce and what a good writer she can be.
First off, I really like the character of Beka Cooper. She likes to be physically active, and will, someday, make a good cop (“Dog” in the parlance of the book). But she’s shy, painfully shy, and it interferes both with her work and her ability to make friends. And I can’t think of a lot of other literary characters who have that trait (at least, none who don’t overcome their shyness over the course of the story, or who get around their shyness by staying strictly within circles and situations where it doesn’t come into play). For Beka, being shy is a thing that is there with her all of the time. She has to be twice as good a Dog in other areas (she’s a really good fighter, and she’s smart) to make up for her inability to talk to people. Anyone who’s spent a lifetime being shy knows how this is.
It’s Beka’s first week on the job, and she stumbles into evidence of…well, we’ll say “organized crime,” and leave it at that. It might be stretching the bounds of credulity to believe that the most rookie of rookies can pull off an investigation like Beka does, but Pierce does a pretty good job of establishing Beka as a character capable of such a thing (and also of making the investigation a collaborative effort, which also helps to keep the story from breaking the bonds of the credible). There’s characters to meet and murders to solve and fights to fight and criminals to arrest and pigeons to talk to. What more could you want from a fantasy novel?
I listened to the audiobook version, so a moment about that specifically: It’s well read. I mean, really well read, by Susan Denaker. The Lower City, where the story takes place, has its own syntax and slang and way of speaking (and, because it’s written as Beka Cooper’s journal, this language is throughout the whole book, not just the dialogue), and Ms. Denaker gives the voice of the Lower City life and heart. Just as different classes of British citizenry have different accents, so do the classes in the Lower City, and Ms. Denaker is able to shift between them. I got brought into the book in spite of myself. Well-produced and well-performed audio book.
Not-so-great things about the audiobook: Really, the only thing is that, since this is a story that takes place in a whole nother world with other vocabulary, names, and places, it can be hard (especially if you’re a touch hard-of-hearing like me, or if you’re listening to the book in a noisy place like on a bus) to understand proper nouns. There’s a lot to keep track of, and since you’re listening to it, you can’t easily go back and refer to previous passages and check your understanding. The print version of the book has a map, glossary, and a list of characters, all of which would’ve been enormously helpful for me to have to refer to in the audio version. This isn’t really so much of a problem with this audiobook in particular as it is a weak spot of audio books generally, but there you go. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to look at the character list in the print version before you get started, to learn how all the names are spelled.