Pros: Fascinating fusion of modern and magic; plot keeps the reader guessing.
Cons: It can be difficult at times to keep track of all of the threads of the story.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
Despite the influx of magic and assorted fantasy creatures into Cleveland ten years ago when the Portal opened, reporter Kline Maxwell doesn’t do “fuzzy gnome stories”. He’s much more comfortable in the world of human politics. But when a dragon falls out of the sky and dies, Maxwell suddenly finds himself reporting a story that may have a lot more to do with his usual reporting than he initially thought. As he begins to learn where magic and politics cross, he finds himself in mortal danger. Who can he trust?
As his life begins to return to normal, he gets a phone call from a dwarf that wants to give him some insight into why the former City Council President committed suicide. His life once again takes a sudden uptempo turn, and the stakes for this investigation are suddenly the greatest he’s ever played for…
After reading the back cover copy of S. Andrew Swann’s Dragons and Dwarves, I was a little apprehensive. It seemed like a premise that could either work really well or not at all, but as soon as I started reading I was hooked. Mr. Swann does a masterful job of crossing some of the more familiar fantasy elements (magic and mages, dragons, etc.) with a gritty journalist’s voice. It actually reminded me of the Harry Dresden novels; both series have a similar feel to them. But what really stood out to me was that despite the grit and darker sides of people and creatures that we see, Maxwell has an inherent optimism that keeps me wanting to see him succeed.
I also love the way that the voice of the story shades into a little bit of a noir, hard-boiled journalist feel. It allows for some interesting examinations of values, such as the comparison and contrast between the honor systems of elves and humans. Maxwell’s journalistic questions let the reader see behind many of the masks that the supernatural races wear, to try and glimpse some of the values and rationales behind the behaviors. The hard-boiled voice also allows Mr. Swann to play around with some truly unique and hilarious imagery, such as his description of a college building: “My best attempt to describe it would be if Salvador Dali ate a Silver Surfer comic book, and threw up.” The little moments of wry humor are also worth waiting for.
The amount of world-building that has gone into this book is simply breathtaking; not only has Mr. Swann figured out what would happen if magic leaked into our world, but he has lovingly detailed a lot of the political and societal fallout. From deciding who has authority over the Portal, to creating police units that can deal with magical creatures, to even the effects of magic on modern electronics, we are granted a glimpse into a textured and nuanced world. Thus it is easy to enter into the labyrinthine politics that surround much of the intrigue taking place. As I dove deeper into the plot I felt as if I was watching a complex falling domino arrangement that had been set in motion; it couldn’t be stopped, but I wanted to see the patterns it made as it fell. The connections between characters and events were revealed slowly and piecemeal, so that I was constantly trying to figure out what was going on. I could catch glimpses of the larger shape, but there weren’t any major giveaways.
That being said, however, for me at times there was just a little bit too much information to keep track of. A reference to a character that hadn’t been mentioned in a while would pop up, and I’d have to search my brain for who the person was trying to find the connection. For some readers this won’t be a problem, and it only happened twice to me, but both times it pulled me out of the story. That being said, if I continued reading I was able in a few pages to figure out what I was missing and get myself back on track.
The suspense builds slowly, until Maxwell hits a tipping point where he is caught in the action, and to step out means nearly certain trauma or death. It feels masterfully done because Maxwell feels like he is in control until circumstances won’t let him back out. That’s a situation that I think most people can relate to in some way, and Mr. Swann does a beautiful job of showing how people can get to that point just by being themselves.
Despite having to keep track of a lot of information, I can see many readers like myself getting sucked into the rich and complex world of the Cleveland Portal. The mythology, the magic system, the characters and the politics are all so richly textured and layered that it is easy to slip into the story and get swept away by the flow of the story. The reader and Maxwell both are able to put pieces of the puzzle together, but must wait to see the whole picture revealed. I have to confess I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Maxwell and his world, and I desperately hope that Mr. Swann will bring his readers back to the Cleveland Portal again.