The Facefaker's Game by Chandler Birch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My usual rule of thumb is that any sentence in a blurb that says "for fans of $author" is most likely a bold lie by the marketing department. I decided to risk it, though, since I am indeed a huge fan of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, primarily for their likeable rogues in grim settings; and this time I wasn't disappointed, because that's exactly what I got.
I wasn't disappointed in the least - though, rereading the blurb, it also describes the book as "picaresque," and technically it isn't, since it lacks the essential "episodic adventures" element. I'm always happy with a heist, though, and although the heist doesn't end up being the central focus, there's plenty of heist-like scheming along the way.
There's also a wonderfully dark, grimy setting, with mysteries that, in this first book at least, are never resolved. Why do "rasas" turn up on the street with no memory, and where do they come from? Where do the animalistic people who roam the slums at night come from (and where do they go during the day)? We don't know - and we don't need to know. These are just among the realities the protagonist has to deal with, along with a cruel thief-lord and how to take vengeance on him, the difficulty of trusting his fellow rogues, his struggle to learn magic, the problem of keeping his friend safe, and periodic physical dangers as he attempts to solve his other problems.
The protagonist is well developed. A "rasa" who doesn't remember his origins, he has an instinct of compassion and protection towards others who are weaker, and rebellion towards those who are stronger. (This means that, although the setting is indeed grim and dark, the book itself is not grimdark, much to my relief.) He's one of those magically talented youngsters who show up so often in fantasy, but he struggles and works hard to learn magic, and has to have a moment of personal growth, not just desperate circumstances, to make a breakthrough. He's believably untrusting of his benefactors, and all of his actions are credibly driven by internal and external conflicts, even the ill-advised ones.
The magic system is well thought out and essential to the plot. Although there is a minor bit of coincidence here and there to get the characters together (and to provide a magical tool, which isn't too essential in the long run), it didn't strain my disbelief.
Apart from a few very minor typos in the pre-publication version I received from Netgalley for review, it's cleanly written and generally extremely competent, especially for a first novel by a relatively young author.
Above all, though, it's a gripping adventure with a character I wanted to see succeed, and who I want to read more about. I'm very glad that the ending points to a sequel, and I hope it's as strong as the first.
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