Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: Blessed & Cursed Alike by Kiarna Boyd

Blessed and Cursed Alike
by Kiarna Boyd

The pulse of any city flies fast and rides hard if you know how to hang onto it. A good story is the same way. Blessed and Cursed Alike is the first novel by author Kiarna Boyd, and in its pages a spell is cast on the reader.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I first picked up the book, except there was bound to be magic, and that the plot was driven by motorcycle couriers. I knew it was likely the magic would attract me, but so far as motorcycle couriers go, my only exposure to them had been in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and from time spent hanging around the hard-riding bicycle couriers that were a brief phenomena during the 1990s here in Portland, Maine.

I read a couple of chapters, and put the book down until I had more time. On my next day off, I picked it up again. I didn't put it down again until I'd read the whole thing. In other words, I spent my single day off of the week immersed in the world of the city, the city of Zade and Otter and Dis. And it was good.

In any city, there are the ways that are heavily trafficked, and there are the ways in between them. Those who know the city on the ground level know and use the between-ways automatically, threads of a map long-woven into their heads. The shortcuts, the favorite graffiti tags that mark a particular post or corner, the dark places to avoid. It's all there. This book travels those ways.

Something is going on in the city. Couriers are dying at an alarming rate. Strange murders and deaths are occurring every day. Granted, that's pretty normal in a big city. But these deaths are piling up way beyond normal. They are pushing towards something big and strange, something marked large on a powerful and unknown agenda. The couriers keep pushing through the traffic, all praying for luck as Dis attempts to get them where they need to go, on time, and now more importantly, while keeping them safe. Unable to name what enemy is pushing the city towards the brink, he does his best to protect his own.

Overlooking the city from its benevolent perch, the towers of St. Anna's cathedral form a graceful fortress from which Mother Ida shines as another beacon of support to the couriers, mourning with them as their friends die, one by one. She blesses their bikes in the hopes of preventing more tragedies, and behind the scenes she and Dis fight over what is the best way to keep everyone safe -- her somber, churchly ways, or his centuries-older pagan ways. When murder reaches into the safety of the churchyard, and a friend disappears, the stakes are raised. How much sacrifice is too much?

Meanwhile, the wheels of the couriers' motorcycles continue to crisscross and weave through the streets of the city, with less of them on the road every day.

As Dis attempts to unravel the patterns of death and influence, the cords tighten around his adrenaline-bound clad of riders, until it finally becomes evident that what is manipulating this modern city towards cataclysm is a much, much older history than most of them know.

As well as having a terrific cast of characters which I spent most of that Monday off hanging out with, this book touched a few long-languishing heartstrings for me. It reminded me of the raw frontier feel I got from reading the Borderland/Bordertown series (brought to life by Terri Windling, Will Shetterly, Ellen Kushner et al back in the 80s, recently revived in the new collection Welcome to Bordertown). Unpredictable and charged with magic, but very, very human. It also reminded me of the shadowy powers-at-work feel of another great piece of early urban fantasy, Emma Bull's Bone Dance.

Another good crossover comparison would be Charles de Lint's books, where everyday people grapple with extraordinary things on the threshold between now and a much older world whose lingering magic weaves through the edges of ours, alternately burning and blessing those who find it.

I highly recommend this book. It is well-written, from setting the scenes to dialogue to pacing. Even the cover design is sharp. Most of all, I feel like I know the characters after reading it. I suspect they'll be hanging around in my head for a good many years to come.

I'm tremendously glad I chose to read this book. As laden as the story is with death, it's a reminder that you get one life to live -- live it to the hilt, and then when Death comes, as it does, for Blessed and Cursed Alike, have no regrets.

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