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Dead Reign
      Spell Games
T.A. Pratt
      T.A. Pratt
Bantam Spectra, 324 pages
      Bantam Spectra, 337 pages

Dead Reign
Spell Games
T.A. Pratt
T.A. Pratt lives in Oakland, California with partner H.L. Shaw, and works as a senior editor for a trade publishing magazine.

T.A. Pratt Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Marla Mason Website
SF Site Review: Dead Reign
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Blood Engines
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Blood Engines
SF Site Review: Blood Engines

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Here are the third and fourth Marla Mason novels, from late in 2008 and early in 2009. (It seems to have become more common these days for ongoing series to have multiple novels per year -- for another example, I see that the next two outings in Carrie Vaughn's Kitty series are due early this year.) In the first two books, we were introduced first to Marla, a badass sorcerer with a particular talent for martial magic; and then to her city, Felport, a grungy industrial town of which she is the hidden ruler, in her role as chief sorcerer.

I found these two novels the most entertaining of the series (after a bit of a slow start for Dead Reign). As with the other books, Marla is an engaging character with real flaws despite being the heroine. She makes mistakes -- bad mistakes with consequences. She is mostly on the side of "good" but there is a dark side to her. And in these books we learn a bit more -- a lot more -- about her backstory, which has significant impact on the plot herein.

As I said, Dead Reign gets off to a bit of a slow start. An insane necromancer has been released from the Blackwing Institute, Felport's asylum for sorcerers -- it seems he has been (mostly) cured of believing he's dead. As he was an ally of Marla's predecessor, she's not too excited about this, especially as he seems bent on returning to his old habits of raising the dead -- in this book in fact reanimating a corpse that may be that of John Wilkes Booth. At the same time Marla is distracted by being forced to help plan the Founders' Ball, a five-yearly event for the ghosts of the original Felport leaders. Necromancers, ghosts, and the book's title suggest perhaps where things are heading -- and so perhaps it's no surprise when Death shows up. Or at any rate Death's heir, who is angling to displace his "father" on the throne of Hell, and who needs something from Marla to manage that. But Marla is not too pleased with young Death's attitude, and she resists. So Death deposes her, and Marla is forced to travel to Hell itself to try to regain her place in Felport.

About a third of the way in, the action picks up and the book is immensely entertaining from that point forward. Marla's eventual strategy is surprising and oddly logical -- and it leaves Marla in quite an unusual position! We also meet an old friend from the first book, and learn some things about Marla's Indiana girlhood and her relationship with her brother. And both these things drive Spell Games.

As book 3 closes, Marla's brother Jason (Jason Mason -- yeah) shows up in her life for the first time in nearly two decades. And so the fourth book opens with Jason, so long estranged, telling Marla he's gone sort of straight, and that he's forgiven her for the act of betrayal (in his view) that led to their estrangement, and that he wants to get to know her better. Oh, and by the way, would it be OK if she helped just a bit with his latest con -- an attempt to convince local rich man Campbell Campion -- a sorcerer wannabe -- to part with most or all of his fortune. Jason doesn't believe in magic, but he does know that Marla has a rep, and that will be a big help in his con.

Marla is suspicious but she does regret her damaged sibling relationship, so she agrees to go along. Meanwhile she is training a new apprentice -- Bradley Bowman, the gay actor/psychic we meant in the first book of the series, Blood Engines. Bradley shows lots of promise, and perhaps his presence cushions to some extent the relative absence of her longtime sidekick Rondeau, who is helping Jason, enthralled by the fun of the "grift." And then a rival sorcerer hears of Jason's con, and jumps to the conclusion that a certain magic item Jason is trying to interest Campion in is real: and so the rival sees a chance to mess with Marla. Bottom line: nobody knows everything, and everyone's partial knowledge leads to terrible mistakes.

The action plays out quite entertainingly, with just a bit of the old fantasy weakness (magical powers that seem to conveniently appear just in time to vanquish an enemy). As I said, everyone, including Marla, makes mistakes, and these mistakes have truly wrenching results. As expected for a novel about a caper, there are unexpected twists -- unexpected and also satisfying (if sometimes quite distressing). Other pleasures include snappy dialogue, an array of colorful and well-depicted characters, and some neat magical ideas.

I'm quite enjoying the Marla Mason novels so far, and happily they are still getting better as the series continues. I'm not sure how many more books are planned, though the ending of this books certainly suggests further things that need resolution. I'll be reading along, at any rate.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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