I have to confess, Michael Pryor’s second installment of THE EXTRAORDINAIRES series, The Subterranean Stratagem, did not quite charm or engage me as much as its predecessor, The Extinction Gambit, did (or Pryor’s earlier THE LAWS OF MAGIC series). As this is the first of Pryor’s books not to do so, I’m going to consider this a minor blip and assume book three will regain his usual form.
The Subterranean Stratagem picks up a few months after the end of The Extinction Gambit, with Kingsley and Evadne’s new act struggling more than a little, due mostly to Kingsley’s personal struggle in trying to keep his wild side in check, something he has been having more and more difficulty with. Their personal relationship is just as stalled as the professional one, stuck somewhat awkwardly between professional and something more intimate.
In an attempt to help Kingsley deal with his wild, wolfish side, they decide (with the help of Rudyard Kipling who makes another appearance) to further explore Kingley’s mysterious past. In a moment of good timing, his father’s journal makes an unexpected appearance, though only briefly as it is quickly stolen, necessitating a quest to recapture it. Mixed in are those evil trio of Immortals and their repulsive Spawn, a diminutive human-like race forced into slave labor, a not-so-competent bureaucracy charged with keeping an eye on the strange goings on in the Demimonde, ancient gods, and perhaps most surprising of all, Kingley’s foster-stepmom to be, who shows up seemingly out of the blue carrying some historical baggage that makes Kingsley just a little suspicious of her motives.
Kingsley and Evadne’s relationship remains charmingly old-fashioned and amusing, though it plays a little more flat than in the first one (or perhaps just overly familiar). I noted in my review of The Extinction Gambit that perhaps things come a little too easily for the characters, and that flaw seemed both more frequent and more noticeable in this follow-up. Everything in the book seemed a bit too safe, too familiar and/or predictable, too easy and comfortable, with a few too many coincidences or nicely timed events and while there has always been a bit of that in Pryor’s books, it’s rarely detracted from my enjoyment of them to the degree it did here. I kept wanting at least a little more edge, a few more surprises, a bit more of a turn to a darker, more uncomfortable side.
As usual, the prose is smooth and the story, if a bit flat, moves along at a decent pace. The main characters are enjoyable albeit, like the story, a little flat in this tale. Side characters are not quite as interesting as they have been in the past. The villains feel less threatening and less competent, which is part of the reason the story is less compelling.
The Subterranean Stratagem isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it also doesn’t capture the imagination, either with a captivating tale or particularly interesting characters (as portrayed — their underlying nature is, however, quite interesting). Here’s hoping for a return to an earlier level of engaging characters and plot in the next installment.
The Extraordinaires — (2012-2013) Publisher: The intriguing beginning of a brilliant new fantasy trilogy from the master of magic, Michael Pryor. Kingsley Ward is in dire trouble. Instead of thrilling the audience with his death-defying escapology, his first performance ends in disaster when his hidden wolfish nature bursts free. That same night, his father is abducted and his home ransacked. To find Dr Ward and redeem himself, Kingsley braves the Demimonde, the mysterious world that exists alongside our own. He is soon the target of two warring factions: immortal magicians whose diabolical plans will create mayhem at the 1908 Olympics, and the last Neanderthals, whose vengeance will wipe out humankind. Kingsley needs help. The famous author Rudyard Kipling will assist, but why is he so interested in Kingsley? Evadne Stephens, juggler and weaponsmith, is a Demimonde expert — but what does her mercurial nature conceal? Bizarre plots. Sinister magic. The extraordinary is about to happen…