Nightwise has been languishing on my reading queue for quite some time, but after enjoying both books in Belcher’s new Brotherhood of the Wheel series I knew it was high time to see where the author would take me in this journey through his Urban Fantasy realms. And what a journey it was, indeed, mixing the well-established themes of UF with those of the hard-boiled noir and placing at the center of it all a character who requires some time and effort to connect to.
Laytham Ballard is a Wisdom, or wizard if you want, trained in the arts of the Life, the magical background underlying everyday life and unknown to most humans. Ballard’s old friend Boj is dying and as a deathbed request he asks Laytham to find and kill Dusan Slorzack, the man who tortured, raped and killed Boj’s wife. Easier said than done, since Slorzack, besides being a former military, is well connected with the criminal underworld and also apparently versed in the magical arts: any trail Ballard tries to follow is beset by dead bodies, horrific creatures and mortal danger.
Determined to get to the bottom of it all (and at some point more interested in winning the game than fulfilling his dying friend’s request) Ballard enrolls the help of a group of disparate people – some versed in the magical arts, others possessing more mundane but still precious skills – and starts a very risky journey from which there might be no return, learning as he goes that there are layers upon layers in the occult world, and that many of them encompass unexpected domains like finance and politics. It goes without saying that the final showdown is as brutal and bloody as the events preceding it, and it opens the way to more stories focused on Laytham Ballard, the second of which I’m already eyeing with keen interest.
As I said in the premise, Ballard requires some strenuous work, from the reader’s point of view: he’s not your average UF protagonist, the kind with a shady past but a good, generous heart. No, he’s all rough edges and unpleasant traits, quite selfish and self-centered, a total badass who does not make excuses for that but rather admits it with no small measure of pride. What’s worse, from the very start we see how he has no qualms about throwing innocent bystanders under the proverbial bus when need arises, candidly acknowledging that it’s better them than him. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a loathsome character, and at first it’s so easy to despise him, but as the novel moves forward and bits and pieces of Ballard’s history come to the surface, one begins to see where he comes from, which events molded his psychological makeup and how his worldview was shaped. It might not be enough to actually like him, but in the end I came to care for him as a character (sort of…) and to be invested in his journey.
What’s more enlightening than those fragments of Ballard’s past is the way he relates to the people in his inner circle and, more importantly, the way they relate to him: seeing how they care for him and his well-being, and how they worry about his self-destructive habits, you can see the man from a different angle and measure him not so much for the face he shows the world, but rather for the way those people perceive him. If establishing an emotional connection with this character might prove something of an effort, his friends’ continued concern is the key to a better understanding of what makes him tick. And last but not least there are hints about a crucial event that required a massive sacrifice, one that might be at the root of Ballard’s apparent lack of empathy: these words
They cut your joy […] They cut it out of you like a surgeon. They amputated your emotions…
are as revealing as they are enigmatic and just beg for a deeper knowledge of the man.
Laytham Ballard is not the only dark element in Nightwise, however. The background in which he moves is just as harsh and gritty: we are treated to several tours of the underworld where mundane and magical cross paths, a setting where drugs, extreme sex and violence are commonplace, a veritable journey through a hell in which Ballard seems to move with careless confidence. Ghastly and gruesome as some scenes might look, there is still a vein of humor running through them which manages to balance out the inevitable revulsion: this story is so very much darker than what I experienced with the Brotherhood of the Wheel novels, and without this whimsical element I doubt I might have endured through the whole book. Violence is also present in considerable quantity – there is a long sequence in which Ballard suffers days on end of torture, which was truly difficult to stomach – and it’s thanks to that amalgam of humor and brutality that I was able to move forward, wondering all the time whether he accepted that pain while waiting for the opportunity to escape or because he saw it unconsciously as a form of well-deserved punishment for his worst deeds…
I realize I might have scared many potential readers with my considerations, but I’d like to point out that no matter how dark and unforgiving this story and this world might look, there is a fascinating quality to it all that keeps you glued to the book, and it’s enhanced by the few rays of light scattered throughout the narrative, the best of them a casual encounter on the road that sees Ballard accepting a lift from a trucker, who is none other than dear Jimmie Aussapile from the Brotherhood of the Wheel series, here making his first appearance (and probably being the seed concept for the other novels…): I can tell you that this encounter made me all but squeal with joy, as if I had found a long-lost friend, because Jimmie is a delightful creation – well, apart from the tobacco-chewing, that is 😀
If Nightwise forced me to tap into my reserves of inner strength to withstand some of its more troublesome moments, I’m glad to have explored this new area in R.S. Belcher’s rich imagination, and look forward to seeing where this grim character will go next.