A few weeks ago, Harry Connolly announced that his series, Twenty Palaces, had been canceled.
That post is every author’s worst nightmare in text. You pour your heart and soul into something, for years, and then one day, somebody just says, “no, thanks. That’s enough.” And it’s every fan’s nightmare, because when you read an exciting, well-written series, it becomes a part of you. You feel, just a little bit, like you own it. So why am I recommending this to you? Because I like to frustrate you? No. But first, let me tell you a bit about the series.
In the world of Twenty Palaces, magic is real … but extraordinarily rare and exceedingly difficult. Sigils allow an adept to summon and control mystic forces, but the spell books containing these arcane signs are jealously – and violently – guarded by the members of the Twenty Palace Society. So right off the bat, Twenty Palaces is my kind of series. I’m a sucker for stories that take place in “the world you know … with a secret.”
The reason the Society so carefully protects is equally fascinating. Hiding in the spaces between worlds are creatures called Predators, Lovecraftian monsters that have been trapped for eons and are desperate for a solid meal. A single predator, we’re told, could eventually destroy the entire world. Dark mages, however, don’t recognize this danger, and often attempt to summon Predators to fule their own magic. The Society is the only thing standing between our world and certain cosmic doom.
But the society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. Connolly reveals that the Society is crumbling from within. The spell books have all been lost, and no new Primaries – the most powerful kind of sorcerer – can be created. One of the villains mentions – frustratingly, intriguingly without explanation – that only five of the Palaces remain. And one of the main characters tells us that the ancient members of the Society are still wrapped up in the prejudices of times gone by, and refuse to allow women and minorities access to the highest levels of power.
The first-person protagonist is Ray Lilly, an ex-con who only knows one spell: the Ghost Knife, a piece of paper with a sigil that allows it to cut “ghosts, spirits, and dead things”. He’s a wooden man – cannon fodder – for Annalise Powliss, a Peer in the society. She’s covered head-to-toe in sigils that render her an essentially unkillable murder machine … and we all know that I love an unkillable murder machine.
Hidden magic, crumbling paternal institutions of power, and badass spell slingers. If I had to bet, I would have said this series was a guaranteed hit. So what happened?
One of the most common criticisms of the series is that Connolly is so stingy with details about how magic and the Society work, but I actually think that’s one of the stronger aspects; I love being dropped into the middle of things and figuring out the rules as I go along. Connolly drops just enough hints to keep the mystery interesting. Other people have said that the horror is a bit too horrific. Connolly doesn’t pull his punches, even when the Predators are possessing children – and Ray Lilly has to do something violent about it. And there are complaints that Ray lacks a love interest – Annalise not being the kind of girl you’d take home to your parents. Or lay a hand on, unless you want it removed.
I think marketing might have had something to do with it, too. The only reason I gave this series a chance – the only reason I even heard about it – was an endorsement from Jim Butcher, who is bar-none my favorite author. But by the time Butcher started talking about Twenty Palaces, the series was more than two years old, and already on its way to cancellation.
But if the series is (abruptly) over, why would you?
Because the series isn’t really over.
Connolly just self-published Twenty Palaces, a prequel novel that tells us how Ray met Annalise, learned to cast the Ghost Knife, and got pulled into the world of the Twenty Palace Society, and you can buy it right now from Amazon, B&N, or from his own web site.
This is fantastic news, a triumph of the digital publishing paradigm where the Big Six don’t get to tell us what we should and shouldn’t read any more. But it also leaves me kind of torn, because if Connolly hadn’t been picked up by a traditional publisher, Butcher never would have recommended it, and I never would have heard of it.
But this isn’t about traditional versus indie publishing, it’s about a fantastic urban fantasy series. If you like stories about the world behind the world, Lovecraftian monsters, and the nigh-unstoppable badasses fighting against them, the Twenty Palaces series is for you. And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us keep buying, Connolly will have an incentive to continue the series on his own.
Connolly has also released a sword-and-sorcery novellette, Lord of Reavers. It’s going for a buck, and the proceeds are going toward a new pair of glasses for Connolly’s son. I’m not going to lay on a guilt trip or anything, but I am going to say that if you’re looking for a good urban fantasy or a quick sword and sorcery fix, you could do a lot worse than given Connolly a chance.