Verdict: Lumsden can spin a yarn!
This isn’t even my normal reading genre, so I was pleasantly surprised by how the story pulled me into a novel spin on the “urban fantasy” genre.
In an alternate timeline, the modern world has been subjugated by the Dragon Lords, and humans now share space with gnomes, dwarves, and other magical creatures in the present day (Internet and smart phones included). The world is complex and genuinely interesting, from the shadows of geopolitics between the godlike Dragon Lords who have split the Earth’s surface into domains to the nitty-gritty of gang life and back room dirty politics in an urban metropolis. While delivering a complex, living world, Douglas Lumsden does not overly burden the readers with complexities, doling out small tastes of worldbuilding rather than a colossal info-dump at the start (there were only a couple of tiny info-dumpy parts early on, but that’s to be expected in any debut work; these quickly dissolved as the narrative found its own pace).
What sells the story from the front to the back is the wonderful characters, starting with the protagonist Alexander Southerland, a combat veteran and P.I. armed with a sardonic wit and heart of gold worthy of Humphrey Bogart. He really does have some fantastic dead-pan one-liners, by the way, and I found myself chuckling out loud throughout the story. “If I survived the night, I was going to have to seriously consider finding a therapist. Or go on a bender. Maybe I would go on a bender with a therapist.” And despite the truly seedy people he must deal with, Alex truly does have a good heart under his scarred, tough-guy exterior; my favorite line of character development comes at the end, where Alex closes his tale with some downright Confucian wisdom:
“I can’t solve the big stuff, the kind of shit that involves Dragon Lords, and underground networks of seven-thousand-year old elves, and grand schemes carried out by mad scientists in mysterious secret compounds. Maybe those problems can’t be solved. But knowing that any small problems I have a hand in dealing with might turn some gears and have an impact on the world’s bigger headaches, well, that gives me some hope. As purposes in life go, it’s not much, but it will have to do.”Protagonist Alex Southerland in “A Troll Walks Into A Bar”
There is a large cast of colorful characters which I hope will return in sequels; my hands-down favorite dynamic, by far, is Alex’s frenemy relationship with fell0w Borderlands veteran Ten-Inch, a formidable former combat veteran who rules one of the biggest local gangs with an iron fist and a strangely respectable code of personal honor. Despite his truly psychotic energy in a fight (or when dealing with snitches and traitors), you can’t help but like and respect this guy, and during an important interaction late in the book, the reader gets a masterclass in character development and Show-not-Tell. I won’t spoil it for you, but the showdown was my favorite scene in the book.
Honorable mention of course for the mad chemist Kintay (the vials! I laughed out loud!), the impeccably dressed (and utterly terrifying) Stonehammer, the sophisticatedly evil Fulton (whom I hope we see more of later), the mysterious Fisherman (no spoilers), and many more. Honorable mention for the delightful dynamic between Alex, his cantankerous lawyer, and the lawyer’s kindly and endlessly-flirtatious wife. One hopes to see more of this odd ersatz family in future! Early on, there were very occasionally relatively minor issues for me with dialogue where a character didn’t sound “in voice,” but no more than any other promising series as it “gets up to steam” with such a marvelous, complex cast of characters.
And get up to steam this story most assuredly does, setting up a web of such deliciously Mycroftian complexities, plots, sub-plots, and double-crosses that it feels rather as if Raymond Chandler had a secret love child with Isaac Asimov, which verbose tyke is whipping up stuff in the kitchen that leaves even intelligent readers with their heads spinning as Lumsden serves up a masterpiece of a finish, which ties up innumerable loose ends into a Gordian Knot that he deftly slices with wit, verve, and some excellent one-liners. The reader is left feeling deeply satisfied, with that rare ending that feels “earned”. I particularly enjoyed the lore of the disappeared Elves and harbor great hopes of what I think is being set up for a great many excellent sequels.
Oh, and a word on the action scenes, which writers rightly bemoan as being among the most difficult parts of the game. They read excellently well, and I was left with the conviction that the author has spent plenty of his own time in a ring, octagon, or dangerous back alley at some point (the fight with Ten-Inch was particularly well-executed and I felt myself ducking and pivoting along with Alex in the mighty struggle).
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into reading a book so far from my usual genres, and I was richly rewarded for the gamble. As an Indie author, I know how hard it is even to finish a project; but Douglas Lumsden’s debut honestly felt like any top-billed volume I’d grab on the front table at a bookstore. His style may still be evolving, but I frequently felt myself thinking of great writing in Dresden Files and of Odd Thomas. Five stars, and I will be back for more of Alex’s adventures! Do yourself a favor, and read this book.