One of the oldest adages in the world of writing fiction is “Write What You Know”. It may not be a perfect formula, but it’s a bloody good place to start, and it’s served Alan Baxter well with his new novel Bound, the first in a series about protagonist Alex Caine, from Harper Voyager.
Caine is an illegal ring fighter, and a very successful one at that. The book opens in the ring, straight into the action, and it keeps going from there. In fairly short order we discover that Caine is not just a highly skilled martial artist, but he has a secret ability — the capacity to foresee his opponent’s intent and actions by reading their ‘shades’. Without much ado, Caine is embroiled in troubles with a match-fixer, leading him to accept an offer to travel to London with a mysterious man who says he knows Caine’s secret. And once in London…
The pacing of the book is very strong. Baxter moves us from fights to revelations of deep magic, into the centre of a hidden world steeped in ancient lore with lashings of creepy creatures and violent confrontations. In true and appropriate form, Caine is revealed to be an unusually gifted Mage and is quickly drawn into a quest to destroy a terrible grimoire linked with an unspeakably dangerous entity from the distant past. His allies are a shapeshifting half-Fay with a penchant for rough sex, and an incalculably powerful magical stone broken into three shards which must be reunited if Caine is to have any hope of saving himself from the influence of the grimoire.
The books strengths are also Baxter’s: himself a practitioner of a form of kung fu, Baxter draws upon his knowledge to provide Caine with not only a string of believable, fast-paced fight sequences, but a deeper code upon which to shape his behaviour. This last is important, because while the book overtly is about Caine’s quest to destroy the grimoire and the being — ‘Uthentia’ — associated with it, much of the conflict that drives the narrative lies in Caine’s efforts to maintain his control and his humanity as the influence of the grimoire increases.
In another sense, this strength is also a potential weakness. In this book we are introduced to Caine, and we know him only through his fighting skills and his martial discipline. We discover that he was orphaned, and lived rough for a while before finding a sifu — a master — to guide him, and from that day on he has essentially lived a life on the fringes: he fights, he wins, and in between he lives quietly, alone in the country.
That’s enough for a first book, especially one as pacy and action-oriented as Bound. The reader is invited in for a fast, dangerous ride, and Baxter delivers precisely that – with a few touches of wry humour here and there, particularly amidst the support characters. Nevertheless, this is only the first Alex Caine novel, and it draws the protagonist (and the reader) into a very high-powered, fast-moving world with some truly fearsome enemies.
In other words, fun as Bound is, Baxter is setting himself a hell of a challenge for the next book. In a genre where enemies traditionally get bigger and badder with each new instalment, we’re already pretty far up the power scale. And in the meantime, we’ve really only been shown one aspect of Alex Caine. Somehow, the next book is going to have to give Caine room to grow and move, while still keeping the action rolling.
It’s going to be fun to watch!
(Oh — and bonus points to readers of Australian horror and fantasy who spot the Tuckerised characters in the narrative!)
Bound by Alan Baxter
Dark Urban Fantasy Fiction
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 2014