THE YEAR OF THE KNIFE by G. D. Penman (Book Review)
Urban Fantasy. I know. I’ve said in the past that urban fantasy isn’t really my thing. But G. D. Penman writes the Ask the Wizard feature on the Hive, and these always make me laugh. So I was looking forward to experiencing his unique, distinct style in full.
The Year of the Knife reminded me a lot of those very few urban fantasies that I actually love; Jasper Fforde, and Michael Marshall Smith’s Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence. There’s the gelling of magic and the fantastic, of demons and Other Planes of Existence, with a world that is almost recognisably our own but at some point in history took a different branch than we did… The Year of the Knife is set in 2015 in an America that is still run by the British Empire. This kind of twisted reality is one of my favourite aspects of Fforde’s writing, so it’s safe to say it’s something I thoroughly enjoyed about Penman’s. This is a well-imagined realistically crafted world; Penman considers how the use of magic and the existence of magical creatures would affect our world and day-to-day life.
Then, striding into this world of stiff-upper-lipped bureaucracy, and political backstabbing and secrecy, comes Sully. She’s an Irish lesbian witch and I
have such a bad crush on her was so excited to read about this intelligent woman who commands respect in her field, who is strong and powerful, but who ultimately is so very flawed. Representation is getting better in fantasy (Stephens, Williams, and Suri are just some of the queens I’m nodding at here), but it’s taken long enough to get here that it’s still exciting and refreshing to see it; but especially to see it done so well. It was nice to see Sully breaking those female-character conventions – she’s strong and confident, and can pull a punch; but she’s not dumb and easily manipulated. Likewise she’s very intelligent and brilliant at magic; but she’s not shy and meek. For me, what then brought her back down to earth from all this was her flaws. She’s not supposed to be a perfect super-hero. She’s bitter, and rash, and selfish – she’s human. What I particularly loved was just how close to the edge she is; every time she cackled I couldn’t help but think of Granny Weatherwax – you know where cackling gets you. This moment in particular made me laugh aloud:
Sully was laughing and she couldn’t stop until she cast a wild-eyed glance behind her and saw the fear on the protesters’ faces. It stopped her in her tracks.
The Year of the Knife has strong film noir undertones; the plot is powered by a mystery that Sully needs to solve. As with urban fantasy, noir and crime are not usually genres that pique my interest, but coupled with this setting and Penman’s writing style, I thoroughly enjoyed them.
Behind the little eyes in the middle of his slab of a face, there were cogs spinning at high speed, and somewhere in that arcane mechanism, in the region of the brain related to having a career in the morning, a little alarm bell started ringing.
I couldn’t always keep up with Sully’s detectorive leaps, the steps from clues, to hunches, to leads; but I put that down to my own inexperience with that particular style of plotting. I wonder if had it been clearer enough for me to follow more confidently, a veteran of the genre might have found it too simplistic and obvious.
Although Sully is the main focus throughout the book, there are a number of supporting characters who are well-defined and distinct from each other – certainly more than just props to our protagonist and plot. They are diverse, and unusual… Speaking of unusual, my favourite was definitely Raavi. He reminded me a little of Entrapta from She-Ra. On the surface of things, focused on their work to almost a selfish degree; but underneath that, fiercely loyal.
“Toddle off and find our demon, will you? I can’t wait to see what it looks like. Some sort of jellyfish is my bet. I love the ones with tentacles. Their neurology is always so fancy.”
I really hope we see more of him in future!
There was one character connection I couldn’t quite understand, and I don’t want to elaborate too much here because of spoilers. But there is a relationship which sours, and I think because the souring happened so quickly, and was perhaps a little rushed, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself with the change in status of this particular relationship.
However, despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the quirks and magic, both the system and the pure magic of Penman’s writing, throughout this book. It’s a strong opening to a series I suspect I’m going to absolutely love.