On the surface, Blood Engines seems like any number of urban fantasy novels out there. Strong leading heroine? Check. Contemporary backdrop? Check. Supernatural action, sex, and sarcastic humor? Check, check, check.
Yet, Blood Engines has more going for it than you might think. For instance, in most of the urban fantasy series that I’ve read, the opening volume usually spends a lot of time on set-up and ends up leaving the reader with more questions than answers. Not so in Blood Engines, which is basically a self-contained story. Sure, there are a couple of threads left unresolved that will get picked up in the sequels, but never once did I feel that I was reading a set-up novel.
Part of the reason is that the leading protagonist reads like a veteran character — apparently Marla Mason has appeared in previous short stories by Mr. Pratt so that has something to do with it. So from the very beginning of the book Ms. Mason, chief sorcerer of the city Felport, and her associate Rondeau, an “inhuman psychic entity that long ago possessed the body of a little homeless boy,” are thrown into the fire. In short, the two are in San Francisco searching for a powerful artifact that will help prevent a rival from usurping Marla’s position as chief sorcerer. What should be a fairly simple job becomes vastly more complicated when an acquaintance turns up murdered and the artifact in question is stolen for use in a diabolical, world-threatening plot that has something to do with poisonous golden frogs, hummingbirds, blood sacrifices, and Aztec mythology. Throw in a sex party, alternate universes, ancient gods, some interesting magic concepts, and a wild cast of supporting characters, and you have a story that is just as fun and outrageous as it sounds.
Character-wise, Blood Engines is a bit of a mixed bag. Marla Mason is obviously the star of the show getting the bulk of the third-person narrative, and what I liked about her is that she knows what she’s about (her strengths and her weaknesses), she doesn’t take crap from anyone, and even though she’s the good guy, she’s definitely not a saint. Plus, besides being a “jill-of-all-trades” sorcerer, she also has martial arts training, possesses a knife that can cut through the metaphysical and owns a bad-ass cloak that is as powerful as it is dangerous.
Rondeau meanwhile is not human, comes from unknown origins and has a gift for tongues, or more specifically Cursing. Basically, there’s not really that much to Rondeau and he’s more or less there for the banter and the funny quips, but he is open sexually, which is actually a common theme with some of the other characters, including Marla. Then there’s Bradley Bowman (or ‘B’), a former actor with psychic abilities who shares part of the narrative with Marla. While B isn’t that well-developed, I liked him better than Rondeau and I hope that he’ll be featured more prominently in future books. Of the rest, there’s your usual blend of villains, allies, and those that fall somewhere in-between. Mutex plays the main baddie and while he had some impressive abilities, the motives behind his overall actions were a bit thin. Personally, my favorites in the whole book were some of the side characters, particularly such unconventional sorcerers as the pornomancer Finch, the technomancer Dalton, and the cannibal Bethany.
Regarding the writing in the book, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Mr. Pratt’s other works so I can’t comment on that, but from what I’ve seen in Blood Engines I’d say he’s pretty competent. The author displays a good grasp of the world that he’s created — specifically the magical elements (some of which are quite unique). His research seems detailed (especially the city of San Francisco), and he knows how to write a page-turner — I finished Blood Engines in just over a day.
The only thing I didn’t like was that I thought the metaphors were too simple and clichéd and I thought the pop culture references (Bruce Lee, the Beatles, Godzilla) too obvious, though I did see one to the post-rock band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead.
All in all I enjoyed Blood Engines. It’s worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy and want to try something that’s recognizable, but distinctive.