UNCANNY COLLATERAL by Brian McClellan (SPFBO Semi-Finalist Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is almost reaching the end of round 1! As you know, we’ve cut our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, and for the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – each of these books in full before eventually announcing our SPFBO 5 finalist on Friday.
Without further ado, then…
Alek Fitz is a reaper, a collection agent who works for the supernatural elements of the world, tracking down debtors and solving problems for clients as diverse as the Lords of Hell, vampires, Haitian loa, and goblins. He’s even worked for the Tooth Fairy on occasion. Based out of Cleveland, Ohio, Alek is the best in the game. As a literal slave to his job, he doesn’t have a choice.
When Death comes looking for someone to track down a thief, Alek is flung into a mess of vengeful undead, supernatural bureaucracy, and a fledgling imp war. As the consequences of failure become dire, he has few leads, and the clock is ticking. Only with the help of his friend Maggie—an ancient djinn with a complex past—can he hope to recover the stolen property, save the world, and just maybe wring a favor out of the Great Constant himself.
It’s a hell of a job, but somebody’s got to do it . . .
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I’m not overly keen on the cover, in particular the representation of Maggie? It’s professional and slick, though, and definitely screams urban fantasy.
My initial impression of the story itself was favourable despite urban fantasy not really being my “thing” – in terms of prose, I think this is the highest polished out of our whole batch and as such was very easy to read.
I really don’t like the cover much. I picked it up even before SPFBO as I did enjoy the author’s epic (trad-published) series, but probably would never have touched it if I found in a store by an unknown author. Covers obviously are a matter of taste – and I simply don’t like humans front and center on a cover myself.
The book itself definitely compares to other Urban Fantasy series like Harry Dresden (Butcher), Hellequin Chronicles (McHugh) or Rivers of London (Aaronovitch), though I must say that while I definitely enjoyed Uncanny Collateral a lot, it didn’t work as perfectly for me as some of those series.
I’m not a great one for covers. This one is well produced, giving a strong image – I guess it’s just not how I saw the characters in my head. The prose is strong and clean – full of laconic lines.
I love cover art – I can’t help but get excited by what’s in store from what the book is selling on the outside, and the cover here doesn’t really sell it for me. However, once I opened up the book, I realised this is one of the most polished stories in terms of writing style and execution, and that quality stands out more than the grey-blue thumbnail-sized art when browsing Amazon.
I agree with Mike – the art is fantastic, but the colours don’t really ‘pop’ enough to catch the eye of a casual browser. It’s a bit grey and muted (MOAR FIRE, PLEASE), and I’m also not a fan of the fact that the main character has his back to the viewer.
However, from the first page, the writing had me hooked. I read the whole thing in just two sittings; the pacing is great, and on the whole it’s a very fun and easy read.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I liked the characters, and I was interested in what was going to happen to them, but I didn’t fall in love with them. I thought they were developed well enough, but the drive of the book seems to be its plot rather than the characters themselves.
I did like them, but as stated above I didn’t click with them as much as I would have loved to. With Harry Dresden for example even Bob the skull felt like a full-on character to me, but here Maggie kept feeling a bit bland. Alek also could have been fleshed out a bit more. I absolutely LOVE the idea of a reaper as main character, but it fell a bit short of my expectations there too. So all in all for me they were good characters, but not excellent – yet. I think they might get more substance over the course of the series, but not in this installment. (The author has shown in his other series that he definitely is capable of amazing characters, after all.)
I enjoyed the pairing between Maggie and Alek. Their relationship felt well drawn. I said earlier it felt like “I Dream of Genie” had been remade by Quentin Tarantino, and there were also shades of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun for me in the sense of a partnership between pilot Maverick and his navigator, flying the same plane – one driving, the other scanning and warning. It made for a different kind of double act, and I liked the idea of their shared headspace.
The bad guys and the not-quite-bad guys were intriguing, I liked the card-playing Ferryman, but – as I’ll come back to later – the hierarchy of powers felt a bit fluid and escher puzzle-like, as the recurring theme seemed to be that each fight had to show Alek at a disadvantage.
Maggie and Alek are your (un)usual ‘buddy cop’ duo in the UF world. Except for the fact they’re both in the same body. Ish. Their relationship, and interplay, was what sold me on the story at the start, and it was still going strong at the end.
I really liked the protagonist, Alek. As the others have mentioned, his banter with Maggie is charged with both humour and (at times) tension, and does a great job of conveying their (somewhat unconventional) pre-existing relationship. Alek himself is a strong balance of competence, badassery, humour, and dark/tragic backstory, and he makes for a sympathetic and entertaining narrator.
It’s a shame the book’s length only really allows for a surface-level exploration of both lead characters. I know it’s the first in a series, but I’d still like to have seen more depth to Alek and Maggie.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
I felt this was certainly where this book shined. It’s most definitely a page-turner; I can’t think of any moments in which I felt the plot became bogged down at all. McClellan’s naturally flowing prose coupled with the crime-thriller plot left us with a pace that didn’t let up. Having said that, with how short the story was, it did mean it was all over pretty quickly!
The pacing was really fast! At times even almost too fast. I absolutely raced through the book and couldn’t put it down. At some scenes I did feel like we ran past the plot a bit and I would have liked a closer look instead of a glimpse out of the corner of my eyes. But it definitely made for an action-packed and fluent read. It was very easy to follow and once you’re in the story you’re racing along.
It’s a short book that drives itself along pretty hard. The notion of a market in knock-off souls was interesting, though I suppose I struggled with the idea that stripping people of their souls didn’t seem to impair their function much; I wasn’t sure why people who had sacrificed them would miss them anymore than they might miss tonsils or an appendix. Maybe that aspect could have been developed more.
McClellan keeps up a good pace, but does leave a few ends hanging a little loose; our leading duo are pursued by different forces, and I was puzzled by some of the interrelationships between the opposing factions. No spoilers but I had this nagging question, “Why did he let himself out for hire to her?”
Short, sharp, sweet, and sudden – that’s how I feel about Uncanny Collateral. This was a book I could have quite happily kept on reading, but it cut itself off before I wanted it to finish. It’s a page-turner, there’s no denying that, but it skims over certain scenes that I would have happily plumbed the depths of.
Again, I’m with Mike on this one. Uncanny Collateral really is a page-turner, but as I mentioned in my comments about the characters, there just wasn’t enough time for the story to gain any real depth. I felt like it was over before I’d fully been able to settle in and enjoy it. I would’ve liked to see more mystery, more false leads, and more consequential interactions between Alek and the people who have clearly shaped his life. I think it would also have benefited from a few more slow-paced chapters to break up the action.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
This is where I struggled with this book. Although I absolutely loved the wide and varied cast of magical creatures, I hated the setting. This is no fault of McClellan’s of course, it’s absolutely a subjective problem. Urban settings are fine, but I much prefer secondary worlds.
I love Urban Fantasy. A lot! So I was very happy to have one in the contest. And as I said above I was utterly excited by a reaper as MC! But as this book was so very short I felt some of the world building also fell a bit short. It definitely could have used a bit more depth here and there. I’m pretty sure this will expand over the series (also as said above), and it’s common in first books of a series. Still, as I’m judging this one on its own merits it could have been even better.
The world building was interesting in that although this is urban fantasy, it is a setting where ordinary mortals are aware of the fantastic and even have a different kind of police force especially tasked with dealing with them. I guess it gets over the problem of how can you have a part-human bruiser dishing out wall-crushing mayhem without attracting some attention from the “authorities.” All urban fantasy has to make a decision about how far the real and the fantastic are aware of each other and I guess you could argue that Harry Potter is at one end of that Urban fantasy spectrum.
I liked the notion that Maggie’s ring (like Janet’s void in The Good Place) housed a veritable mansion of extradimensional space – sort of Tardis-like – that she could retreat to and consult libraries so extensive they would make Rupert Giles from Buffy slip into a swoon.
UF isn’t my first choice in the fantasy shelves, but I am certainly open to the possibilities it offers. Uncanny Collateral was different from others I have read before, in that it posed a world where humans are aware of the not-so-humans, and that was an interesting dynamic to me. That being said, because this setup is the new norm, it lost some of the intrigue for me. I like it when things are new and exciting – not the usual.
Like Beth, I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy. There’s just something about modern settings (and America in particular) that drags me right out of even the most well-written tale. The only exception to this so far has been the Paternus trilogy by Dyrk Ashton, which is so strongly suffused with mythology that it makes you feel like you’re viewing the world through totally new eyes. While I did appreciate the less-traditional fantastical elements to Uncanny Collateral – the protagonist being of troll descent, for instance, and the punch-enhancing tattoo of Mjolnir on his fist – there just wasn’t enough of this to overcome the (for me) immersion-breaking modern-day elements.
It was quite short and sweet, and seemed to be over in no time. There isn’t anything very clever or challenging or intricate about it. It’s quite straightforward. I didn’t enjoy the references to pop culture and familiarity of the world, but I loved the mythical aspects – the large cast of creatures and how they fit into the modern world.
I really, really enjoyed this one, but it isn’t one of my personal favourites. I absolutely think this could have been mostly perfect with maybe 100 or so pages more to it, to just flesh the whole thing out a bit more. I’d definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a fast paced, easy and fun UF, even if it isn’t perfect.
This was a well written, professionally produced story. Raymond Chandler meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An easy read, even if sometimes I found myself rocking through some plot rapids. As Julia says, I think it could have benefited from a few more pages to give its different plot strands a bit more depth of treatment.
I enjoyed this, don’t get me wrong, but after such a strong start, it raced along to an end that felt like it needed more time to wrap up. Nay, not just needed – I wanted it to have more time to develop itself. This has so much going for it, especially Alek and Maggie, whose approach reminded me of jaeger-piloting from Pacific Rim (two minds, one body). An easy and enjoyable read, which could have been more if only it offered up more.
***Commiserations to Brian McClellan and his fast-paced urban fantasy Uncanny Collateral.***
We’re now down to five semi-finalists. Check back TOMORROW for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 5 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the next few days as we review our remaining semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!), and check out our introduction to round 1!