Sworn to the Night by Craig Schaefer (SPFBO Review)
T.O. Munro has stepped in on behalf of The Fantasy Hive to help out with the final stages of SPFBO 4!
SPFBO – aka the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – is a contest organised by Mark Lawrence with the aim of celebrating the best amongst – you guessed it – self-published fantasy. Read more about its origins here, and check out the current finalists’ scoreboard here.
Schaefer skilfully blends genres and settings from the very start of the book’s fourth-wall-challenging set up, where an elderly fantasy novelist is kidnapped at helicopter point for interrogation by a mysterious organisation. In a scene that felt – in my imagination – like a crossover between an episode of Angela Landsbury’s “Murder She Wrote” and Stephen King’s “Misery,” the novelist chooses to answer her interlocutors by telling the story of Detective Marie Reinhardt and Professor Nessa Roth. This pair form the incandescent binary stars around which a rich variety of minor characters orbit and interact in a world system of dizzying complexity.
Marie Reinhardt is an obsessively committed detective whose early and continued reading of trashy fantasy novels has turned her thirst to be a knight with a shield into a career as a cop with a badge. Schaefer’s depiction of her has the gritty realism of a police procedural and the noirish style of Chandler’s Marlowe. Nessa Roth, on the other hand, is a frustrated academic in a dangerous marriage, who dabbles in the occult with Wiccan enthusiasm only to find the occult dabbles back. Their paths cross – strangely not for the first time – when Marie’s pursuit of a grisly serial killer leads her to a property owned by Nessa’s husband.
There is much to praise in this extremely well-crafted and enthralling story which leaps from the pages like a contemporary horror movie. Knots of detail add depth to Schaefer’s depiction of a recognisably everyday world. However, the surface of normality is stretched and distorted by the ambitions, alliances and rivalries of supernatural forces lurking just beyond the two protagonists’ perception.
Schaefer’s writing is elegant, with many lines that caught my eye, including:
He had slick moves and better lines than a used car salesman.
“King Arthur is dead, and the Round Table isn’t hiring. So tell me… would you like to become my knight?”
Eventually she slept. Wandering through turbulent dreams, looking for clues.
Or this one evocative reference to the fallibility of our own memories, re-written as often and as much as they are re-membered:
The world was full of liars, but memory was the most insidious of them all, the only liar that lived in your head.
The story is complex but avoids my two greatest aggravations in plotting. You will have heard of the Deus ex Machina, but at the other end of the spectrum I would like to coin the phrase “periculum in stultitia” or peril by stupidity. That is that moment in horror films where the audience cry out “Don’t split up, stay together!” or “Don’t go into the spooky house!” or even “Why don’t you just go to the police/use your mobile phone!” etc. Those moments where the plot requires its characters to defy all common sense in order that the story can migrate in the direction the director/author wishes.
I mention this because one of the great strengths of Schaefer’s plotting is that the characters are all essentially sensible. They don’t do stupid shit. The consistency and rationality to their actions enhances the gritty realism of a fantastic world.
The urban mythology with which Schaefer underpins his world is complex, and at times I had to let myself just be swept along by it as a plethora of minor characters and factions each stuck their oar into Marie and Nessa’s fortunes. Although distinctive and entertaining, it took a little time for me to get a sense of where each of these characters stood on the multi-dimensional axis of good and evil. However, my favourite had to be Daniel Faust, surely the sharpest of card sharps!
Schaefer has a rich cast filling out the cosmic aspects of his urban fantasy series, so – to a degree – it appears that stars of other stories are making guest appearances in this book. Hence there is a depth and richness to these minor characters and a hint of complex “told-elsewhere” back stories. This makes them seem larger than their parts and – being so many – means a reread and refresh of key points would probably have helped my understanding. But then, being swept along in a slight haze of confusion is not unpleasant, a bit like Marie’s night spent finishing off a bottle of Glenlivet with her flatmate.
While Nessa – by the circumstance of her marriage – has few allies to support her, Marie has two great sidekicks in her police partner and her flatmate, Janine – who gets some of my favourite lines. For example.
“I’m just saying, you’re way overdue for a lover who doesn’t run on batteries. It’s a small apartment, Marie. Thin walls.”
But especially this one, in the middle of something of a struggle.
“You like that?” Janine panted. “You want some more? Never fuck with a librarian.”
But it is the interaction between Nessa and Marie that was so powerful that I made notes about it to myself many times – “… this is delicious like the meal they are having.”
As I read through this book, with my SPFBO hat on, I found myself thinking: it starts strongly and gets stronger, building to a fitting climax in a story that clearly “…will be continued.”
Final Score: 9/10