I was enduring a bit of a reading slump, and was looking for a palette cleanser to reinvigorate my love of reading.
And voila, enter the witty, irreverent, action-packed noir crime urban fantasy, “A Troll Walks Into a Bar” by author Douglas Lumsden, as the perfect slump buster!
Man, did I have a lot of fun with this one!
True to the title, murder and mayhem are going down in Yerba City, and hard-boiled, cynical, couch-surfing Private Eye, Alex Southerland, is there for it, when a troll enters the drinking hole Southerland is cozied up in. In a nice twist, rather than approaching Southerland with a case he’d like handled, the 500-pound monster warns Southerland NOT to take on specific cases, should they arise.
Of course, later, a gorgeous (mere-) woman later enters Southerland’s office and begs him to take one of the exact same cases that the troll demanded Southerland refuse. What’s a down-on-his-luck, indebted, kick-ass P.I. going to do? Of course, do the bad-idea thing, ignore the troll’s warning and take the case.
Naturally, aforementioned murder and mayhem quickly follow, as a sinuous, shady plot ensues. Southerland must use his magical and sleuthing abilities, his wits, and toughness, with the help of some friends, to take on crime gangs, trolls, dragon lords, sea monsters, were-rats and more, to try and stay alive, and attempt to solve the caper.
I adore first-person detective novels, as it puts us right in the sleuth’s head as he tries to figure everything out, with all the limitations of only what information the PI possesses, and that’s what this book does, extremely effectively. And I really liked the protagonist, who fits the mold perfectly of the hard-bitten, hard-ass, potty-mouthed P.I., capable of taking and dishing out a beating, with a strong sense of justice, who is a softie underneath the tough exterior.
Southerland has plenty of compassion, open-minded thinking, and heart, and this is an easy character to root for. Unlike many magic users, he cares for the elements of magic he commands, and treats them with empathy.
The ensemble cast is fabulous – Smokey and Badass are my favs. The colorful side characters, disgruntled civil servants, disillusioned lawyers, cops on the take, and other baddies, are contrasted nicely with the snarky yet sensitive Southerland.
The worldbuilding is phenomenal. Lumsden does a marvellous job with atmosphere and setting. In a circa 1950’s type world hat is technologically ahead of its time, but populated by gnomes, trolls, elemental sprites, animal-shifters, Adaro (mere-people), Yerba City, is on one hand, a dark, gritty, chain-smoking, dreary, sleazy place, where people get beat up in back alleys.
But it’s also a place of great wonder, vibrancy, diversity and multiculturalism, where humans live alongside fantastical creatures in (more or less) harmony. Ancient feuds between the various races still simmer beneath the surface, and a veneer of relative peace, which makes for a very tense and volatile situation, making the city feel like a tinder box, about to explode. Which it is.
Lumsden expertly captures that campy, noir vibe, with Yerba City, and I really enjoyed the novel’s backdrop.
The magic is also fascinating. The elemental magic, especially the were-rat aspect was great, and I loved the cheeky were-rats!
This being a stabby, sweary, who-done-it type fare, one might not think Lumsden would tackle compelling themes in the novel, but he certainly does!
Speaking on issues of environmental preservation, ecological damage, and concerns surrounding what necessitates asylum, the mere-people in the books are a presented by Lumsden as a protected species, because their ocean habitat is being eradicated by humans. Lumsden also tackles other societal inequities, police abuse of authority and corruption, quite thoughtfully and realistically.
The hand to hand (and magical) fight scenes and shootouts are awesome, bloody, visceral, very well done. Our hero Southerland, does not miraculously escape combat with nary a hair out of place. He takes his fair share of lumps and bumps in this book, adding to the realism.
The prose is burnished, and straightforward, hilarious, and more than a little bit profane. Be warned: if you don’t want a lot of cuss words in your novels – look elsewhere. This one drops obscenities every tenth word or so. Southerland, in his acerbic, witty commentary, does not hold back on his imprecations whatsoever, nor do the other characters.
The plot builds, just the way one would expect in a detective thriller story, starting off slow, setting things up, and then taking the reader along in labyrinthine fashion, interspersed with moments of shocking violence and brutality, as the mystery unravels, the stakes rise, and the characters find themselves deeper and deeper in trouble. Friends masquerade as enemies and vice versa, and there are plenty of twists, betrayals, blackmails, jaw-dropping surprises, and an explosive ending.
A very well-executed blend of crime noir and urban fantasy, filled with dark humour, magic, and audacity, “A Troll Walks Into a Bar” was a real hit with me, and I can’t wait to read more of Southerland’s escapades.