The end result of more than a decade of obsessive endeavour, The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is the first part of a fine fantasy saga mixing gods and monsters that promises a lot, but delivers on too little to linger long after its last page.
Be that as it may, it’s engrossing in the early-going, as the author thrusts us into the midst of a magical battle between Marney, an out-of-practice empath; a goodly number of golems in service of someone called Fabian Moor: an evil Genii determined to bring his banished master back from the blackest corners of beyond; and Old Man Sam, a bounty hunter unburdened by the little things in life, like what’s right.
The good, the bad and the ugly are all searching for the same thing, in this instance: a girl called Peppercorn Clara. “Barely eighteen, she was a whore rumoured to have a libido as spicy as it was insatiable. The story was that [she] had killed a client halfway through a job.” Needless to say, this is a fabrication. Clara’s only crime is that she’s different from most of the million mere mortals who live in Labrys Town, being the first magical being born within its walls in a generation.
Marney’s intervention means that Clara lives to tell her tale. Sadly, her saviour isn’t so lucky. The empath is captured by Moor’s monsters… and that’s all she wrote, really, outside of a few flashbacks.
Sam, on the other hand, kept his head down while the fire bullets flew, just as Marney asked him to, so when Clara is arrested after the clash, he follows her to an area of the city known as the Nightshade. But of course, our bounty hunter has been here before—here, where the Resident dwells, and the Relic Guild is based. Or was, once:
There were still some denizens nowadays who liked to call themselves treasure hunters. Nobody took them seriously, not even the police; after all, even if they found a way past the boundary wall, the only place left to search for treasure was the Retrospective, from which no one returned. However, before the Genii War, treasure hunters had caused so much trouble for the Resident that a special organisation was created, a group of agents whose purpose was to counteract the illegal trade in Aelfirian artefacts, to recoup the stolen merchandise and deal harshly with those involved. These agents were the only humans permitted to use magic; their identities were kept secret, and they were known as the Relic Guild. But like so much else, the Relic Guild had disappeared after the war. No one had heard from them for decades.
Back in the day, both Sam and Marney were agents of the aforementioned organisation, “but since the doorways to the Houses of the Aelfir had been closed, there had been nothing for them to do anymore. […] But now there was Clara. Now Fabian Moor had returned. Now the Relic Guild had purpose again, even if most of its agents were dead.” Their mission: to find Moor, save Marney, and put a stop, if possible, to whatever the evil Genii is plotting.
All this makes for a pretty thrilling beginning, and the secondary thread—in the form of frequent flashback chapters to a time when Sam and Marney were in their prime—also starts strongly. But it, like the storyline at the centre of Cox’s novel, goes nearly nowhere… and oh so slowly. The middle third of The Relic Guild is mundane, in the main—linear and rather repetitive—and the end, though it has its highlights, offers next to no closure. Even the sections set Forty Years Earlier cumulate in a cliffhanger, such that the text in its entirety feels unfortunately unfinished.
Readers aren’t likely to be writing home about the characters, either. In the first, there are some strange naming conventions, and several archetypes in dire need of development:
Samuel was an old bounty hunter and he understood well that those who allowed sentiment to dictate action did not last long anywhere in the Labyrinth. There were no loyalties, no bonds of friendship and honour in this place—not anymore.
Aside Old Man Sam and Van bloody Bam—a mysterious man with a tragic past, apparently—our protagonist Peppercorn Clara is a surprisingly safe for someone with such an interesting history. Relatedly, she adapts to her new role as a Relic Guild recruit with altogether too little difficulty; meanwhile there are moments when it’s hard to tell Clara apart from flashback Marney.
So: pacing problems, flat characters and a dubious denouement. But don’t be so quick to dismiss The Relic Guild. In the end, there’s actually quite a lot to like—especially the setting. Conceptually it’s a stretch, I suppose—the city simply doesn’t feel as expansive as Cox insists it is—but what little we see of it and its surroundings is striking, and the way in which the world works its way into the magic system whilst the magic system works its way into the world imbues both elements with a certain significance:
The very foundations of Labrys Town were imbued with magic. A network of energy lines flowed beneath the ground and in the air, travelling like blood through veins. The network connected every district and building. It provided homes with energy, kept trams running, and charged the little crystals that the denizens called power stones. If one were skilled enough, it was possible to feel the network, see it, use it, and to detect within it the presence of magic that did not belong to the Labyrinth.
There are a number of other highlights, as it happens—not least the concept of the Resident and the Orwellian workings of the Nightshade—whilst what little action there is is smartly handled.
Crucially, Cox’s prose is never less than pleasant. He’s clearly a competent author—an author who promises to do great things one day, I dare say—and the beginning of his debut is borderline brilliant. Regrettably, the remainder of The Relic Guild is riddled with enough niggles that I can only recommend it with reservations. A solid start, lacking heart.
The Relic Guild is available September 18th from Gollancz.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.