I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review: despite having closed my blog to indie submissions a while ago, I was intrigued by the premise of this book since I read LYNN’s review of it for the 2019 SPBO event, so that when the author contacted me I was happy to make an exception.
Under Ordshaw is an Urban Fantasy story that follows the genre’s parameters only up to a certain point: we have a modern city setting coexisting with a paranormal reality made of fae and monsters – the latter haunting an underground system of galleries – but the similarities stop here. The main character is neither a detective, nor is she a specially gifted person (both being common occurrences in UF): on the contrary she’s a quite ordinary girl who is forced to face extraordinary circumstances despite her best efforts not to.
Pax Kuranes is a skilled card player living off her winnings: as we meet her she’s just gained a considerable sum in a poker game, one that will allow her not only to pay the almost-overdue rent, but to buy her place in a high-stakes tournament whose earnings might go a long way toward offering some security for the future. Pax’s elation is short-lived though, because a young man in a bar swipes the money from her pocket even as he’s being arrested by a government official: angry and frantic about the money, and curious about the thief’s mutterings about a minotaur, Pax does a little digging and finds a strange, hand-drawn book in the man’s hideout – a book representing weird, creepy creatures that seem to come out of the worst Lovecraftian nightmare.
This is only the beginning of Pax’s eerie adventure, as she’s introduced to the mysteries of Ordshaw’s underground and to the existence of a terrifying and secret world peopled by monsters, fairies and agents of good and evil, whose line of demarcation is quite fluid and changes more than once in the course of the story: the man from the shady Ministry of Environmental Energy, Casaria, is definitely a creepy individual, especially when his p.o.v. chapters make the reader privy to his dreams on a future working partnership with Pax, which he hopes might evolve into something deeper. On the side of the “good guys” there is Barton, a man who stumbled by pure chance on the secrets of the underground and tried to keep its dangers at bay by acting in something of a Don-Quixote-like quest, but he looks more dedicated than effective, and pays the price of his self-imposed mission with injuries and the damage to his family ties.
And then there are the fae, winged creatures only a few inches tall, who nonetheless prove quite aggressive and sometimes lethal – if someone ever needed a confirmation of the maxim about size being unimportant, they would need to look no further than Ordshaw’s fae, especially Letty, the leader of a small, mutinous group and my absolute favorite character in the novel. Letty is brash, aggressive and foul-mouthed, and yet she turned out to be the best drawn player on the scene, and one I had no trouble picturing in my mind’s eye, from her gossamer wings to the middle finger she keeps flaunting at the slightest provocation.
What lurks in the bowels of the city has been dwelling there for a long time, and has been the object of a tug-of-war between the fae, with their nomadic city, and the humans on the surface, both groups at odds and competing for the possession of a bizarre artifact that might change the balance of power in both realms, and the story builds – despite some “hiccups” in pacing – toward a climatic chase in the underground tunnels as the various characters try to shift the balance of power and to stay alive at the same time, since the horde of dreadful creatures of the depths has been roused and is out for blood. And flesh. And other assorted body parts…
I enjoyed Under Ordshaw, mostly because of the almost-relentless pace at which Pax and her allies and enemies find themselves facing the events, and I liked how she must work to gain some understanding of what is happening, as her view of the world is subjected to a few extraordinary revelations that will change her outlook forever. As far as Urban Fantasy series go, this book is merely an introduction of background and characters and also a promise of more to come with future installments, where hopefully the reader’s perception and knowledge will be expanded, and as such I’m aware that any problem in both narrative and characterization is bound to be straightened out in the future. Still, there are a few details that puzzled me, and somewhat marred what might have been a total immersion in this world.
For starters, throughout the course of the book I had the distinct impression that there was something eluding me, that there might have been some other information about past events that was not shared with the readers: in several instances I felt as if I had jumped midway into a TV serial and struggled to make head or tails of the story because I had missed the previous episodes. It was frustrating at times, and also distracting: while I can understand the need to avoid the dreaded “infodumps”, I would have enjoyed a more organic development of the playing field, so to speak, that might allow me to place the characters’ actions in a more understandable context.
And speaking of characters, sometimes I struggled a little with their depiction: quixotic Barton and his estranged wife Holly, for example, are at odds with each other because of his nocturnal forays in the underground and her suspicions about his infidelity, but I failed to see some genuine drama there, and their interactions felt stilted at times, well beyond the uneasiness of two people driven apart by secrets and doubts. Then there is Pax, who is introduced as a fiercely independent person who tries not to be weighted down by any kind of tie, and yet we see her constantly enmeshed into other peoples’ troubles, the prime example of this being represented by Rufaizu, the thief whose actions draw Pax into the terrifying world of the underground: most of Pax’s choices in the story stem from her need to know Rufaizu’s fate after his arrest, and her determination in that respect feels at odds with the brevity of their encounter and the simple fact that their whole “relationship” is based on his theft of her hard-won money.
Still, Under Ordshaw offers a promising peek into a bizarre world that just begs to be further developed, and as such deserves to be given the chance to grow.