The Relic Guild by Edward Cox
Magic caused the war. Magic is forbidden. Magic will save us.
It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls a hundred feet high.
Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.
The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth – and the lives of one million humans – Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.
Time for what I am sure many of you will consider a startling revelation – I’m a sucker when it comes to fiction featuring secret societies. I just can’t help it; I always have been and always will be a fan. I love the idea that there are mysterious groups working behind the scenes, trying to maintain the status quo and keep the blissfully ignorant masses safe. Add a genuinely evocative fantasy setting into the mix, and I’m in book reviewer hog-heaven*1
When Peppercorn Clara is first introduced she’s on the run from some truly nasty individuals. Someone wants her permanently silenced and even in a place as big as Labrys Town she is swiftly running out of places to hide. Her only sliver of hope comes in the form of the fabled Relic Guild, but who or what is this clandestine organisation? And more importantly, can they be trusted? Clara acts as the reader’s guide as she meets the Guild and learns the rules of their secretive existence.
Where this novel really excels is in the wonderful characterisation and world building. The various members of The Relic Guild, both old and new, are a properly eclectic bunch. They all have their secrets, there are many skeletons in many closets, and Cox makes a point of slowly drip-feeding the reader subtle clues and hints in every chapter.
There are a whole host of wonderful characters to uncover. My personal favourites were Old Man Sam, a remorseless killer/bounty hunter, who has dispatched so many villains over the years that it is almost impossible to separate the myth from the reality. His gruffly stoic demeanour and no nonsense attitude won me over straight away. You just can’t beat a good guy who also manages to be a bit of a bastard. I kept imagining Sam as someone akin to Joe Dredd, stalking the grimy streets of Labrys Town dishing out his own unique brand of summary justice. The fact he shoots first and asks questions later, while using a magically enhanced rifle, is the kick-ass cherry on top of a kick-ass cake.
The other real standout is Hamir, the Guild’s resident necromancer. Initially he didn’t even register, but as the plot unfolds, his bone-dry sense of humour and enigmatic nature make him a great deal of fun. I have some serious suspicions that there is far more to this quiet, unassuming man than has yet been explored. I look forward to discovering if my thoughts prove to be correct or not.
Hell, even the buildings play their part when it comes this novel. There is a character called Van Bam, once a member of the Guild and now the Resident of Labrys Town*2 and his residence is known as The Nightshade. This strange structure follows its own set of rules and plays a key part in the on-going war between the Guild and their enemies. Van Bam and the Nightshade are linked to one another in a fundamental way. Discovering the how and why of this strange relationship really captured my imagination.
The narrative switches back and forth between two different time periods separated by forty years. Alternating chapters focus on each of these two strands and it’s fascinating to see how some members of the Guild have evolved while others remain almost exactly the same. This jump in the timeline also gives Cox the opportunity to craft some tantalisingly mysterious gaps that are never entirely resolved, laying the groundwork for possible further exploration in the future.
The action in The Relic Guild comes thick and fast. Whether it’s taking on hordes of zombie-esque golems, or facing off against the dark magic of Fabian Moor and the Genii, there is plenty of bloodshed to behold. There are some deliciously dark moments. The chapters set in one of the city’s lunatic asylums were properly creepy. I particularly enjoyed how the author has taken the best from a handful of genres and merged them together into a singularly unique mash-up. I could see my favourite elements from a plethora of different story types, everything from police procedural, western and fantasy to horror and thriller were represented in one form or another.
There were moments when I had to remind myself that this is Cox’s debut novel. It’s hard to believe as the writing displays such a confident flair. Within a handful of chapters I had entirely bought into the premise and I felt like I had known these characters, Labrys Town and the Labyrinth for years. The book ends leaving the reader in little doubt that the members of the Guild are set to return again in the future. You get the definite sense that there is still more to this story left to tell. I, for one, can’t wait to read it. This is smart, energetic fantasy that grips you from page one and delivers a genuinely memorable experience.
The Relic Guild is published by Gollancz and is available now. I need a sequel to this book IMMEDIATELY (if not sooner).
*1 it’s a real place, honest.
*2 think benign dictator/overlord and you’re about half way there.