The Bookwyrm's Review of They Eat Their Own by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson
Authors: Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
Length: 276 Pages
Publisher: Ismae Books
Release Date: May 19, 2020
Rating: 5/5 Stars
I read and reviewed Things They Buried, the first book in this series, about a year ago. I was hugely impressed that a debut novel could be so polished and creative, mixing genres seamlessly to create something entirely new. It created a world where genetic manipulation is common, while some things, such as photography, are rare and expensive. The first book had quite a few horror elements to boot, but this book takes an entirely different, but just as effective approach, not suffering a sophomore slump at all.
Starting about a year after the events of Things They Buried, the story starts off in a way I didn't expect: a pirate raid on a ship off the coast of Dockhaven. The ship, a merchant vessel, is carrying a variety of cargo, but apparently has some special items the pirates are looking for: items from a dig in a lost civilization. After getting what they came for, they ensure they will not be identified by any crew, permanently.
We then move to Dockhaven, where we see Sylandair, Duke of Chiv'vastezz, in a high stakes card game with some of the movers and shakers of Dockhaven society, including his rival Flark, who own's the building Sylandair and his mate Aliara, called Rift, live in. Idra, The Mayor of Dockhaven, and another of Sylandair's rivals, is also playing. There is a lot of political and financial intriguing going on with the game, as Flark is trying to influence Idra, who owes substantial loans to Flark, and is holding up other building plans he has. The tension at the table gets especially bad when Flark's minions implode one of his buildings with people still inside it, creating political issues for Idra.
Meanwhile, while the game is going on, Rift agrees to help Dreg, one of the Thung Toh thieves/assassins guild members, on one of his jobs. The job involves breaking into Flark's penthouse, and retrieve shipping guild ledgers, and permanently remove the guild member, now Flark's mate, permanently. In addition, they are to bring a artifact, a Voshar mask, back to Sylandair. The mask is the one thing an enemy from their past needs to enact her evil plan.
While all this is going on, Sylandair is dodging assassination attempts, and when Rift and Dreg return to the party the card game is held at, they end up going with Sylandair, Idra and Flark's ex Daisy to Flark's yacht for a game with higher stakes. What happens there is a crazy series of events, which even the quick witted Sylandair and Rift could not have seen coming, and which leaves them with more questions than answers about certain events in the city. It does present some new opportunities in the future though, as Sylandair and Aliara have some decisions to make.
CHARACTERS AND WORLD BUILDING
This is one of those books that mixes creative characters who push the story along with fantastic world building. The characters from the first book, with the emphasis on Sylandair and Aliara, get more depth throughout the book. Adding a bit more to their backstory, you find out even more clearly how they got where they are, and get a closer look at their decision making process. The events of the previous books have left their mark on them both, and they are still dealing with the trauma, especially Aliara, who's injuries almost killed her. She is unsure if her abilities will return completely, and this doubt really helps makes her a more sympathetic character, while still leaving her to grow back to her strong, resilient self. Sylandair too is a complex character, with strengths and flaws that really make him ring true. The secondary characters are all well written, written as well rounded characters with strengths and flaws, which really helps sell their various stories.
The world building is such a strength of this series. Dockhaven, in my opinion, is one of the best settings in fantasy/sci-fi, on par with the great ones such as Lankhmar, Ankh-Morpork and Sanctuary. It is so well described, you can practically smell the sea salt and feel the wind blowing the stink from the slums. The dichotomy of high tech and low fantasy really shines through, and creates such a unique setting. You really do get a feeling of a hive of scum and villainy, with a thin veneer of gentility over it.
The change in tones between the first and second book could have gone badly wrong if handled by the wrong authors. Fortunately, Amanda and Michael were the right authors, and did an amazing job shifting tones from a sci-fi/ fantasy hybrid with some serious horror elements, to what I think of as a down and dirty Ocean's Eight kind of heist story with an underlying conspiracy. I can see this book appealing to people on both sides of the sci-fi/fantasy divide, and create new fans of both.