The were-rat alone is worth the price of admission
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If I tell you that two of my favourite authors are Raymond Chandler and Terry Pratchett, respectively the undisputed masters of detective noir and urban fantasy, then you’ll understand that when I discovered A Troll Walks Into a Bar by indie author Douglas Lumsden – which declares on its (beautifully minimalistic) front cover to be an “noir urban fantasy” – my expectations were set so high that several egotistical billionaires set up space companies in an attempt to colonise them.
Thankfully Lumsden clearly has a few penis-shaped rockets up his sleeve because boy, did he match and exceed those lofty hopes of mine.
The plot, as befits classic private eye noir, starts off simple and soon spirals out. Private Investigator Alexander Southerland, pleasingly down on his luck and his finances like all good PIs, resides in Yerba city, a place where humans mix with creatures of legend. He’s having a nice quiet drink in a bar when a 500-pound troll joins him, and demands that if a water nymph and damsel in distress should come to him for help, he refuses to have anything to do with her. I don’t think you’ll be shocked to hear that the troll doesn’t get his wish, and things quickly spiral out of control from here on in, taking in crime gangs, sea monsters, wererats, corruption, dragon lords, elves, gnomes, gang fights, water elementals and much more in a hectic conspiracy that never once pauses for breath.
Now for a genre mash-up to work, especially noir urban fantasy, an author has two tricky tasks: they have to nail the worldbuilding for the urban fantasy element, and they also have to do a passable job of recreating the classic noirs of old. Lumsden excels at the first one; every weird creature of legend we meet in this pleasingly sleazy and corrupt fantasy city is memorable and he weaves in his worldbuilding subtly but memorably. Along with the denizens of the city, there’s a background to this world that is absolutely fascinating – I won’t give it away but it involves centuries-old wars and betrayals between ancient races – and it’s clear that he has an overall agenda here that will be hopefully weaved throughout the books to come. The way he mixes the more mundane city life (grumpy gnome lawyers, corrupt troll police offices) with this epic fantasy backstory was one of the most impressive and fun things about this book.
Another great fantasy element was giving our PI a magic ability that he slowly gets better at; again I won’t give it away but I found it fascinating and Lumsden has cleary considered the mechanics of this, so those magic system fantasy junkies out there (you know who you are) will find this plot thread very satisfying.
And, like Pratchett, Lumsden understands that urban fantasy has an important role to play in depicting the ills of society through mythical races. Thus we get some brilliant ideas here, such as the sub-par refugee treatment given to the Adaros (Lumsden’s version of merpeople) after their aquatic ecosystems have been invaded by humans.
But thankfully, Lumsden doesn’t fail the noir aspect too. Any fans of noir know that a good noir plot has to be ludicrously complicated in an entertaining breathless way – the PI staggering from one shootout or blackmail to the next, encountering red herrings and complications – while also making perfect sense in a slow jigsaw kind of way, and Lumsden doesn’t disappoint on this front. He has the cynical but ultimately good aspect of the PI down well, along with his penchant for getting roughed up every other scene. But it never feels hackneyed like so many noir knock offs; partly due to the continuing creativity of this fantasy world we’re enmeshed in.
He’s also adept at fight scenes. There’s one in particular towards the end which goes on and on in brutal fashion; it’s brilliantly staged and I felt every hit. The last time I read a fight scene this good was in Fonda Lee’s masterpiece Jade Legacy, and if you’ve read that then you know what kind of compliment we’re talking about here. I don’t know if Lumsden has Fond Lee’s martial arts background, but he sure can write a fight.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about A Troll Walks Into a Bar is that it did exactly what you want from the first book in a series – made me excited to read the others and find out more about this fun and addictive world. Is it perfect? No. Some plot-explaining scenes drag on and it drags a little in the middle. But no first book is perfect, and part of the joy of a standalone-but-connected series is seeing the author go from strength to strength as their command of their world and its characters evolves, and I’ve rarely been so sure that my investment in a series is going to pay off big time as I am with this one.
If you’re a noir fan or fantasy fan, give this a try. If you’re a fan of both, then what the hell are you doing still reading this? A Troll has just Walked Into a Bar, and believe me, it’s no joke.