This one is right on the cusp of fantasy and sci-fi - a city filled with alien races, surrounded by portals to other planes which come and go mysteriously, and are not understood by anyone. Is this magic or a lost technology? But there is a certain amount of magic in this universe, both learned and innate, and gods and demi-gods as well. There is enough inventiveness here to satisfy the needs of the most demanding of fantasy world connoisseurs, with languages and bizarre races and strange mannerisms and belief systems splattered around with gay abandon. Fey folk? Check. Were-beasts? Check. Lizard people? Check. Caterpillary things? Check. Fades, who didn't quite make it through a portal? Yep, got them too. And sex. Lots of sex, everyone having sex with everyone else, furred, scaled or feathered, male, female or hermaphrodite. So if you think mildly graphic lizard/human sex would turn your stomach, this is not the book for you.
The book has two different threads which (and this isn't giving much away) blend together quite early on, and each illuminates the other rather well. The main thread, as it were, that of brothel-keeper Babylon, quickly develops into a sort of find-the-missing-girl mystery, which conveniently takes her into every nook and cranny of the extraordinary city of Scalentine, so we get to hang out in a lot of bars and brothels and unsavoury back-street locations, and meet many of the city's weird inhabitants. This is quite fun, up to a point, but after a while it becomes really difficult to keep the various characters straight. Is this the lizardy one or the one with cute little wings? Or maybe the one whose portal magic went wrong and left him a sort of emotion-sucking vampire? Boy, there are some weird things (people? creatures?) in this book. Thank goodness for the Kindle search facility.
Scalentine feels very real - a truly vibrant melting pot of cultures, without the chaotic and dismal nature of many fantasy settings. Yes, there are scams and thieves and the occasional murder, but the citizens are (mostly) protected by a quite efficient administration. It feels like a rather civilised place, on the whole, although I thought the Red Lantern was a little too laid back to be a well-run business. No wonder it was in some financial difficulties. But the names - ! Previous? A pair of bondage specialists called Cruel and Unusual? Chief Bitternut?? Enthemmerlee??? Fantasy names are always difficult, but still...
The main plot of the missing girl quickly got tedious but fortunately the focus of the second thread, the Avatars of Tiresana, takes over and things get more lively. There are also a number of minor mysteries sprinkled throughout the book to keep things bubbling along. And yes, everything builds to a suitably dramatic finale, and if sometimes the uncovering of vital information felt just a little too convenient and glib, and if the ending was a little underwhelming, and if Babylon was just a little bit too resourceful and implausibly popular, it's easy enough to get swept along in the excitement and just enjoy the ride. This is not a book where an overly critical and logical mind is called for.
This is a fun read, a hugely imaginative piece of work, with vivid characters (even the ones with tails or tusks or issues with full moons), and a good pacy story (or cluster of stories, really - there's a lot going on), and the author manages to take several swipes at organised religion along the way. I liked the chatty first person narration, which brings out Babylon's self-confidence mixed with moments of terror perfectly, and is often very funny. I thought the two parallel threads, Scalentine and Tiresana, worked brilliantly to add depth to the story. I'm not quite sure where things go from here - a pointer to a possible sequel was squeezed in rather clumsily at the end, but whether this is going to be a trilogy or a series isn't clear. Whatever it turns out to be, this is a great start to it - four stars.