Book Review: Thraxas, by Martin Scott

I’m not sure which is cheesier — the classic covers or the self-published chainmail-bikini — but they both suit the series!

I can’t recall who recommended Thraxas to me, but the interest overlap was obvious: private detective in a fantasy world with a nod to Roman culture. I put it high on my TBR.

What to Expect

As it says on the cover, a hard-boiled-style story of a down-on-his-luck, drunken private investigator with magical education and chequered past. As in most such tales, he is quickly embroiled in far-reaching plots that push him far beyond his comfort zone.

Multiple parties, from rogue sorcerers and assassins to high-ranking politicians, are all scrambling after some stolen magical goods, trying to keep their good name, change society, win the elections, fight crime, and occasionally get to university on time. It’s a short novel that just as hectic as it sounds, moving rapidly and chaotically.

What I liked

I liked the premise, the main characters, and the world. Thraxas is your classic hard-boiled detective (not quite noir, but getting there), and the story is told from his point of view. Though he’s got a sorcerer’s background and has been fighting in wars in his youth, he was never a powerful practitioner. He solves problems with his wits and sword (and the occasional misplaced spell), with the usual dogged loyalty born of really needing the money to cover gambling debts. He’s aided by a quarter-orc, quarter-elf, chainmail-bikini wearing, ex-gladiatrix, waitress friend.

The world itself is interesting, with elements borrowed from Ancient Rome (though not to a degree that it would be classified as historical-fantasy, or stand in the way of readers unfamiliar with the era). It’s just enough to give a different flavour, outside of your standard medieval tropes. The magic system is vaguely D&D-ish, with spells that need to be learned and memorised, and basic cantrips that can be done at will. The more powerful sorcerers seem to be able to effect varied results on a whim, rather than memorised limited spells.

What to be aware of

I found the writing style clipped, and the world-building heavy-handed at times. It won a World Fantasy Award on its debut, so one was hoping for more polish in those regards. The characters can also be a bit flat at times.

Though it’s written in first person as a classic detective, the plot is zany rather than noir. Sword fights are common, but injuries far less so. In this regards it definitely leans more towards older fantasy works than the modern tendency to grim realism and attention to consequences.

In short, more like the works of Piers Anthony or Robert Asprin, than Pratchett or Butcher.

Summary

It’s a quick read, a promising and entertaining, if not polished, first work. If you like classic fantasy and detective fiction definitely give it a try. I’m sure I’ll be checking out later books in the 11-book series, to see if the early style matures and improves.

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