Bookburners S02E06: Incognita
by Max Gladstone
5 out of 5
When We Last Left Our Heroes…: A kinda off-the-books job led by Asanti to pay off a debt to the Maitress also resulted in a tangible lead on fixing the Orb. But was the disruption to the team worth it?
Case of the Week: Liam and Grace go to Shanghai in search of an artifact – and their histories.
How It Went: Having just come back from two weeks’ vacation (just in California, not another country), I had a particularly commiserative reaction to Liam’s opening interior monologue about the torture of customs and security checkpoints. For me and, I’d assume, most of us, we hate it because it’s long and annoying and a little dehumanizing. Liam hates it for those reasons and also because he might’ve done something bad he doesn’t know about, during those missing years. Grace feels a little similarly… and yet here they are, heading into Shanghai. Sal, Menchú, and Asanti are back at HQ (presumably) while this dynamic duo, like squabbling siblings, are on the hunt for this artifact the Maitress pointed them towards.
They wander through old city, specifically the City God Temple area, with Grace fighting back waves of nostalgia and confusion while Liam is essentially playing the tourist. They’re meant to find this thing “on the flip side”, in some sort of sibling version of the Market Arcanum that’s (apparently) called The Bizarre. Or, well, it’s colloquially called that – the Chinese is a little different (and a little darker). Grace spots a tail on them and manages to simultaneously catch on to how to get into the Bizarre: she pushes Liam off a bridge and into the water, where he basically falls through into this mirror-image area of the city where magic is just running free and wild at this bazaar-cum-festival. Liam quickly runs into a talking hedgehog and some delightful Chinese dragons, so this is odds-on where they’re meant to be.
He ends up in a decidedly creepy pinch when the hedgehog finally shows him to the house of the Old Lady – a house full of hair, folks. I was thinking a little bit of the creepy cave of the woods-witch in the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow except, like, with hair everywhere. She has this circlet that they’re looking for and it looks like it’s going to be a pretty smooth transaction until Liam mentions the Vatican and roundly gets his ass thrown out. Not only that, he gets branded as persona non grata. So of course, dazed and at the end of his rope, he runs into Christina – that woman who apparently he knew and who he ran into on the Silk Road.
Meanwhile, Grace burns a bit and manages to catch her own tail – a woman from the Arcane Security Bureau, who is pretty pissed to find a Bookburner on her turf. Turns out there haven’t been Bookburners in China in centuries and the duo is running all kinds of risks by being there. But Grace also manages to convince the woman from the ASB that they can be mutually helpful – Grace gets info on those she left behind when she got candled and the ASB gets a way back into the Bizarre – and, after a little arguing about it, she takes Liam’s point that the relationship with Christina will be similar. There’s a really poignant moment between the two of them in their hotel room where Liam explains that he doesn’t want to be the man that he was, but he does want to know him – and even typing about it gets me in the feels a little bit. Liam’s arc has really become a strong one and I’m excited to see how he keeps developing.
Especially with the revelations that he was basically a technocultist Robin Hood. He meets Christina again – at a gawdy Irish pub, no less, where there’s another dude there who knows his name and wraps him in a bear hug and Liam is major wigged out. He has these moments of memory tugging on him but he can’t place the actual memories – and even as these stories of Robin Hooding and partying and being a swaggering BAMF are recounted, he can’t recall a single damn thing. It’s a deeply unsettling moment… but no time for that stuff because it’s time for some smash and grab! There happens to be a revel happening in the Bizarre that night, perfect distraction.
The technocultists pull off some pretty neat heist tricks with Liam as they bust into the Old Lady’s house to steal the circlet. Christina also plants a pretty sultry kiss on Liam and damned if heists aren’t the most fun, am I right? She also implies that Liam was the leader of the old crowd – their Menchú, in a way – and I’m wondering if this might be a planted seed… Grace, meanwhile, manages to smuggle in Wang Jianguo (of the ASB) and we find out that Grace visited the 1926 version of the Bizarre – which was above-ground and largely operated in the shadows, very veiled and hidden in plain view. She’s overwhelmed by the way things have changed – and Gladstone slips in a nice metaphor here for change overall in China.
Then all hell breaks loose when Christina puts on the circlet, which was apparently booby-trapped by Team Four. The Bizarre is sort of The City and the City‘d back into the real world, the ASB starts shooting everybody and everything, Grace burns almost seven weeks of candle-time in order to take out the snipers and save Liam’s ass as he attempts to get the circlet from Christina. He’s successful, in the end, and they manage to get out of Shanghai with the circlet… but the damage caused was significant, to the area. I’m guessing the Chinese government will slap down any major stories – but it’s unclear what happened to Christina and also what, if any, power the ASB actually has, as it turns out they couldn’t actually help Grace at all.
As the two battered and wearied warriors begin their journey home, they muse on a concept broached early on in the piece about whether or not you can go home again. Their decision is decidedly a ‘no.’
- Matteo Ricci was a real dude! Here’s Wikipedia with more.
- “…drew the eye like a needle drawing blood.” DAMN that Max Gladstone can write a good sentence.
- Nice reference to the Shaw Brothers and ShawScope – makes me wonder what somebody like Tarantino would do filming an episode of a (hypothetical) show like this…
- I like the idea of magic having gone way underground – quite literally – in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. If anyone has recommendations of modern Chinese urban fantasy (Liu Cixin but F, not SF), I’d love to take a look.
- I listened to part of this episode, something I haven’t done yet this season – and so I want to shout out Xe Sands, who is doing amazing work and creating voices for a whole panoply of characters with ease.
Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Four Roads Cross, Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as@maxgladstone.