Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Ledberg Runestone (The Jonah Heywood Chronicles #1) by Patrick Donovan

Jonah Heywood is a shaman and a grifter, just scraping by -barely able to pay his ever spiralling booze bill

Which is a problem when you owe a large sum of money to a loan shark quite willing to break every bone in your body then move on to your family.

So when a woman approaches him with a deal he knows he shouldn’t take, a job he should avoid and a magical artefact he knows he wants no part of; he has to say yes

Jonah Heywood is a character that makes a lot of terrible decisions and he’s pretty unique for that

At which I hear you all yell “but you complain constantly about characters making terrible decisions!!!” Which is true - but in those cases I’m complaining about a character making terrible decisions that no-one - least of all the author - is willing to acknowledge as such. This isn’t a protagonist leaping blindly through portals or conducting one person searches of all Siberia - and succeeding. This is a protagonist making bad decisions which are constantly acknowledged: in fact so much of the plot ran simply because Jonah makes bad decisions which constantly put him in bad situations and leave him with further few good options.

Jonah is an alcoholic. He is in debt and making terrible choices to get out of debt. He is traumatised and not dealing well - or at all - with his traumatic past. He is making the worst enemies in the worst ways and generally just about everything he does I want to yell “STOP! STOP!”. But this isn’t like so many books we’ve read because - because the book is written to EXPECT me to say “stop”. At no point am I expected to agree with Jonah’s choices. At very least every time near-constantly drunk Jonah gets behind the wheel of a car I cringe.

And there’s a really nice balance between Jonah doing terrible things because he has not real choice while at the same time Jonah simply not making good choices: largely because he is in utter denial of where he is (especially in relation to his alcoholism) and in utter denial of the fact He Needs Help. Jonah needs an intervention. Jonah needs a keeper.

I want to route for Jonah. But not for him to win but for him to LEARN. I don’t want or need him to be awesome - I need him to be better; I don’t want him to ascend to be the all powerful one, I want him to put his life together. I want him to sort himself out.

And this is interesting to me because in the opening lines of this book I was sure I knew what this story would be - from the starting in a bar, hard drinking, war wounded, cynical with a woman coming in - who even if she wasn’t DESCRIBED that way you mentally call “dame”. The hyper-powered, hard bitten noir-ish: the Harry Dresden, the Yancey Lazarus, the Remy Chandler (and I won’t lie, I LOVE that whole schtick. Yes yes I do) but then for it to surprise me by turning what I expected to be a hyper-powerful over-the-top character into, perhaps, what that cynic, hard-bitten character would ACTUALLY look like was really an interesting twist. And I found myself really loving that

Side note here: it feels almost like whoever edited this book skipped the first few pages. The writing is actually inexcusably terrible, it’s long winded, convoluted, the dialogue is comic when read aloud, it’s super repetitive (with different characters all quirking eyebrows at each other) and I wrote loads of notes about the abysmal text… but that fades really quickly. I’m not sure why the first few pages skipped editing but it’s worth it to hang on in there.

And Jonah isn’t hyper powerful either. He has magic - he’s a shaman who has some nifty tricks up his sleeve but he is far from dangerous and mighty and definitely not a heavy weight. His magic nicely fits into the world building which is really nicely hinted at in this book (i really love the depiction of spirits here) but there’s more a foundation for more to come. For a story all about a shaman stealing a magical artefact from an all-powerful voodoo Mambo at the behest of a near god it’s all quite mundane.

The plot itself is fun - not unique in and of itself: it’s a classic find the Maltese Falcon plot line. We have twists and an exceptional one at the end; but what holds it together is this unique character and the foundations it lays for something truly epic to come.

The biggest powerful force in this book is a Black woman and her family - she’s extremely powerful but also clearly good. And that is important for any practitioner of voodoo since it’s so often demonised in the media. She is compassionate, even in opposition to Jonah and while she doesn’t play a huge role; she clearly represents the road not taken: the Sensible Choice. Also I think she’s going to be a major element of this series far more so.

We do have a gay character - and in some ways it’s excellent that he does have his life together despite very similar origins and obstacles to Jonah. He is what Jonah could have been with a life, a partner (albeit one never seen) and the ability to help others. But the flip side of this is he appears only when Jonah needs help. He’s Jonah’s greatest friend and he literally only appears when Jonah needs saving, a bed, a ride, someone to clean up after him: this is the very essence of a tokened trope. I want to see him have a life and I want a friendship which goes both ways. Similarly the only women in the book who isn’t his fridged dead sister or a quasi antagonist is a woman Jonah’s playing Saviour to. I’d like to see a woman who Jonah a) isn’t afraid of b) doesn’t need saving and c) has died tragically to give him trauma.

Jonah is a disabled man - he’s an alcoholic, has a lot of unresolved trauma and he has a disabled leg - and it actually affects him. I’ve seen a few characters who are described as having a bad leg - and then they promptly start sprinting, break dancing and setting new records in the triple jump… but not Jonah.

This book has introduced an excellent, new character with a very different focus to many in the genre, an interesting world and a promise of a whole lot of epic coming