Book Review: The Facefaker’s Game by Chandler J. Birch
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Simon451 (November 1, 2016)
Length: 464 pages
Sometimes book blurbs can do more harm than good for the novels they’re trying to promote, by placing crushing expectations upon them that might not be realized. In the case of The Facefaker’s Game, my inner skeptic’s alarm immediately went haywire at the description “for fans of Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch” which is one hell of an ambitious claim if I ever heard one. Then again, every once in a while it pays to give them the benefit of the doubt. While it’s true I went into this book with a healthy dose of realism to guard against the possible disappointment, in the end I shouldn’t have worried. This impressive fantasy debut by Chandler J. Birch definitely did not let me down.
The main character of The Facefaker’s Game is a fourteen-year-old boy with no past; one day, he just became aware of himself, standing in the middle of the street with no idea where he came from or even what his name is. Covered in soot, the boy decides to give himself the name of Ashes. Thing is though, he isn’t alone. Kids like him who just appear in the city one day with no memory are called rasa, and not surprisingly, few of them last long in a cutthroat crime-ridden neighborhood like Burroughside which is run by gangs. Ashes is lucky, if you could call him that; he is clever and quick, which means he is able to make just enough money from begging, stealing and cheating at cards to get by.
But then he gets on the wrong side of the crime lord Mr. Ragged, also Burroughside’s governor. For a while now, Ashes has been sheltering another rasa named Blimey, whom Mr. Ragged wants dead. Keeping Blimey hidden with the eventual goal of moving his friend out of Burroughside has its costs though, as it means Ashes has to steal more money, stay out later in the streets, and on the whole take more risks. One night, he takes it a step too far and runs afoul of the governor’s enforcers, but instead of meeting his end, Ashes is unexpected rescued by an Artificer named Candlestick Jack. Recognizing some magical potential in our protagonist, Jack decides to take the boy on as an apprentice, teaching him the mysterious art of light manipulation and illusion.
Of the many things that impressed me about this book, one of the first that jumped out at me was the quality of the writing. It might not be at the same caliber as the most seasoned authors, but this is Birch’s first novel and he clearly has a talent. His style is confident and easy on the eyes, making the story flow remarkably smoothly from one scene to the next. The pacing is strong and hit no lulls, making this one a relatively quick read for an adult fantasy novel that clocks in at almost five hundred pages. Birch also nails the mood of the setting, successfully portraying Burroughside as the rough, gritty, and merciless environment it is without painting it too darkly. Notwithstanding some of the grueling obstacles in our protagonist’s path, The Facefaker’s Game reads more like a fantasy adventure without the weight of cynicism dragging it down.
The book also features some memorable characters, despite many of them being examples of derivative archetypes. From Ashes (the orphan street urchin who turns out to be special) to Mr. Ragged (the evil and corrupt politician crime lord) and Candlestick Jack (the crafty yet benevolent master thief who takes in street rats to train them), you can’t help but feel you’ve met all of them all in some form or another before. Still, we know certain tropes have hung around the genre and stayed popular for so long, simply because the readership loves that stuff—the way I ate them up in The Facefaker’s Game. The author made me care about the protagonist and his friends, which I feel is the first and foremost goal a novelist should strive for, and to Birch’s credit, he also put a number of interesting spins on his characters, giving them back stories that made their personalities, motivations, and reactions feel very persuasive and real.
Story-wise, I thought this was tightly plotted for the most part, though several threads have been floated so far that have seemingly gone nowhere. There are definitely elements in here that could have been better incorporated, and it is my hope that any plot orphans and unanswered questions will be explored in a future installment. But even with its flaws, The Facefaker’s Game did not let me down. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced book that pulled me in effortlessly, especially since I adore stories about thieves, heists, and the creative uses of magic! Speaking of which, I thought Weaving and Stitching light and illusion was a fascinating basis for what Artificers do, and kudos to Birch for creating such an intricate and well thought magic system.
All in all, The Facefaker’s Game is a solid debut. I’m curious to see where Chandler J. Birch will take his characters next, and you can be sure I will be pick up his next novel.