SORCERY REBORN by Steve McHugh (Book Review)
I came to this book, the start in a new Rebellion series by Steve McHugh, having read just the first of the previous twelve books that made up his Hellequin and Avalon series. I was warned by an avid advocate of McHugh’s work that the intervening eleven books contained an awful lot of plot and character development, and I was even given a helpful three-paragraph synopsis of events.
However, I am always curious as to how far it is possible to pick up a series at some point other than the start of a sequence. After all, authors should like to pick up new readers at any point that they can. To restrict enjoyment of the thirteenth book to only those who have consumed all the previous twelve represents something of a draconian filter on potential readership. I am also conscious that all authors develop in their craft. Some rare few may spring fully formed in all their literary talent like Athena erupting from the head of Zeus, but most mortals, and indeed even demigods like Terry Pratchett, get better the more they write (I mean, have you compared The Colour of Magic to Mort?)
So, all this is by way of saying that I plunged into Sorcery Reborn determined to take it as I found it, with only the mild illumination of the acquaintance I had formed with its protagonist – Nate Garrett – when reading Crimes against Magic.
McHugh gets his readers up to speed with an extensive list of dramatis personae and a prologue to explain how the usually supernaturally empowered Nate finds himself an ordinary human in a sleepy American mid-west town (I should confess to knowing next to nothing of American geography and I am perhaps making an unfair assumption that Clockwork is a mid-western town, and the story itself soon puts paid to the moniker of “sleepy”).
However, the story follows two parallel points of view with a second protagonist, new to me, called Layla Cassidy who, with her own team (far from being the B team), dances between the worlds of Norse Mythology trying to unpick a conspiracy, unmask a traitor and unleash some mayhem of her own.
As Nate and Layla carve their own paths through very different settings, McHugh showers us with names from a variety of mythologies, in a way that reminded me of Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus. While McHugh might not draw quite as widely as Ashton, there is still an eclectic mix of Greek, Norse and Egyptian gods and heroes to be lauded and to be beaten. A bit like Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy, McHugh has turned some traditional expectations on their head with traditional good guys turning out to be pretty much all bad and vice versa.
Nate’s story in its township setting is definitely urban fantasy, though Nate begins the book bereft of the magic that made him such a fearsome warrior in previous series. It is part of a dormancy process following a risky power-up option that he has exercised, and he is clearly vexed by the wait to restore his powers and return to the fray and his friends. The premise is that, in this vulnerable powerless state, Nate should stay safe and avoid drawing attention to himself, but Nate quickly wades in where angels fear to tread and has a ruthless assassin effectiveness that reminded me (and some of Nate’s friends) of John Wick.
McHugh knows his guns far better than I do, describing Nate and his enemies’ various armaments in impressive (and I can only assume accurate) detail, which gives the narrative that nice touch of realism despite its fantastic nature. McHugh also has an admiration for Apache helicopters such that one of them seems deemed to pose a threat on a par with a demigod.
The action is pretty non-stop and a lot of people die even without Nate being able to use magic. There is something of a disposability to both friends and foes as the casualty list lengthens and it’s good to keep the reader on their toes, no-one being particularly safe.
McHugh wields his large cast list with aplomb, each one sketched out in enough essential detail for the reader to get a sense of their nature and motivations. My only experience of Wheel of Time has been a short story that appeared in an anthology I reviewed, but again there was that sense of a large cast and some elaborate backstories converging on a single point of conflict.
No book is entirely isolated from its context and I can sense a degree of McHugh venting frustrations, as a deceitful organisation that has taken over the world and filled the airwaves with lies finds there are people willing to confront it with every means possible. Nazis appear and are thumped pretty much into kingdom come, as Nate avers that their stubborn intractability makes them “the chlamydia of hate groups.”
He also has not just a medusa (always a plus point for me) but The Medusa, who observes:
“They’ll turn this entire world into one giant police state,” Medusa said. “And they’ll do it with human approval.”
And one of the bad guys notes of journalists on the sidelines of an impending massacre/atrocity: “These people…will say what I want them to say. Any journalists here work for us. The story will be whatever we decide the story is.” Something that has a particular poignancy for me writing this in the UK on the 1st February 2020.
Nate is a wisecracking protagonist who dares to provoke his opponents in ways even Chuck Norris might think about for a second or two, but other characters do get some fun lines. My favourite (Medusa again):
“I am not stubborn,” Medusa said. “The word is … independent.”
I find myself mostly describing Nate’s story, perhaps because it is most grounded in Earth, or because it has ties to the other book I had read, and that made it the most accessible for somebody who has skipped much of what has happened in between. One of Layla’s companions though gets another of those lines that made me smile:
“That’s pretty much all mythology is, I think,” Hyperion said. “A group of superpowered individuals with parent issues.”
For both Layla and Nate the action quickly speeds up to full throttle and doesn’t come down from that level very often or for very long. The action sequences make for a very digestible book that sweeps the reader along more with the feel than the detail of what is happening as the cut and thrust of magic and bullet threaten death and destruction. Some gods, however, do not die easily.
There isn’t much ambiguity, the bad guys are pretty damn bad, the good guys are good and inbetween there is a swathe of vulnerable mere mortals, like the honest cops, the high school assholes and others. McHugh’s story dispenses death with machine-gun rapidity and advances at whirlwind pace, so don’t get too attached to anyone, or expect much time to mourn.
But back to my original question: Could readers new to McHugh pick the story up from here?
I’d say yes. There are bits of backstory bled in through character conversations and brief pithy bits of exposition which get the reader up to speed. While you may not have seen all of the “why” you certainly know “who” the protagonists care about and “what” they are fighting for, so what the hellequin, why not start here.