Review: Paper and Blood by Kevin Hearne

Review: Paper and Blood by Kevin HearnePaper & Blood (Ink & Sigil, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ink & Sigil #2
Pages: 304
Published by Del Rey Books on August 10, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Kevin Hearne returns to the world of the Iron Druid Chronicles in book two of a spin-off series about an eccentric master of rare magic solving an uncanny mystery in Scotland.
There’s only one Al MacBharrais: Though other Scotsmen may have dramatic mustaches and a taste for fancy cocktails, Al also has a unique talent. He’s a master of ink and sigil magic. In his gifted hands, paper and pen can work wondrous spells.
But Al isn’t quite alone: He is part of a global network of sigil agents who use their powers to protect the world from mischievous gods and strange monsters. So when a fellow agent disappears under sinister circumstances in Australia, Al leaves behind the cozy pubs and cafes of Glasgow and travels to the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria to solve the mystery.
The trail to his colleague begins to pile up with bodies at alarming speed, so Al is grateful his friends have come to help—especially Nadia, his accountant who moonlights as a pit fighter. Together with a whisky-loving hobgoblin known as Buck Foi and the ancient Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, along with his dogs, Oberon and Starbuck, Al and Nadia will face down the wildest wonders Australia—and the supernatural world—can throw at them, and confront a legendary monster not seen in centuries.

My Review:

The alphabet – any alphabet – is magic. Just think about it for a minute. Alphabets, whatever they might look like, represent the ability to communicate across not just space but across time. If you’ve ever taken Latin, you remember Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, with its famous opening about “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts,” except in the original Latin. Which Caesar may have dictated instead of penned himself, but still, the idea that we can read the words of a person who lived and died not merely centuries but millennia before we were all born is, honestly, magic.

And that’s the kind of magic that lies at the heart of the Ink & Sigil series. Al MacBharrais isn’t a wizard or a sorcerer or a Druid (more on that later) but he can do magic. With ink and paper and a special kind of alphabet called sigils. With the appropriate training and lots and lots of practice, Al can write letters that perform magic. Like a magical version of Doctor Who’s famous psychic paper. Or a magic that can temporarily give him the strength and stamina that he left behind in the sands of time long ago.

Not unconscionably long, just normally long. Al is in his early 60s, and while his mind may be as sharp as ever, it’s been a very hard-knock life as the normal aches and pains of 60+ years of living all too frequently remind him. But when he gets a call from the distressed apprentice of one of his fellow sigil agents, those aches and pains do not keep him from riding to the rescue.

Even if that rescue turns out to be in Australia. It may be a long way from Al’s printing and bookbinding business in Edinburgh, but he’s the only remaining agent without a wife, family or apprentice depending upon him to come home at the end of the day. Or the case. Or the encounter with an ancient monster who is literally shitting demons in a creek.

Along with a deity who is holding his two colleagues hostage. Not to get to Al, but to make sure that someone reaches out and gets the Iron Druid along on what seems to be a rescue operation.

Only to discover that it’s a whole lot bigger and worse than that. But then, so are the gang of friends that Al brings along to one very weird fight.

Escape Rating A: If you love urban fantasy, but have wondered why you haven’t seen much of it recently, the Ink & Sigil series will remind you of the best of that genre. And if you haven’t read much of it, but you like the kind of story where there’s a detective, amateur or professional, a crime, whether mundane or magical, a whole lot of beings that popularly go bump in the night and the snark quotient turned up to 11, well then, this series has the potential to definitely be your jam.

It certainly is mine.

Al MacBharrais is a departure for an urban fantasy protagonist, as he is not young, or immortal, or unaging or actually either a magic user or a magical being himself. Not that he isn’t accompanied by beings who fit one or more of the above classifications.

It’s that combination of Al’s ordinariness with the extraordinary nature of the people he works with and the trouble they get into that make this series so much fun. It’s a view of our world through another perspective but one that is still grounded in our own. While his friend, associate and contracted servant, the hobgoblin Buck Foi, is there to provide comic relief and to give any authority figure – even a deity – a poke in the ego with a sharp stick whenever he feels it’s necessary. Which is often.

The story in this one follows multiple parallel tracks. Al is in Australia to rescue his colleagues, with the help of their apprentice. Al’s rather unusual friends are there to help, to guard his back, to have some fun, and, in the person of “Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite” to see some really weird shit. But it also gives Al the opportunity to observe his friends operating outside of their normal sphere, bringing Al to the realization that the Gladys he has been employing as his receptionist is clearly something else or something more, altogether. Along with, but certainly not limited to, being Canadian.

And then there’s the bigger story, that when Al figures out just how big a mess his friends are in, he asks for help from one of the magical heavy-hitters, the Iron Druid formerly known as Atticus O’Sullivan, along with his dogs Oberon and Starbuck. Al thinks he’s getting help with his problem, only for it to turn out that, in the end, it’s Atticus, now calling himself Connor, who needs Al’s help solving his.

That’s where things get interesting, also a bit, not exactly problematic but certainly at least deeper.

There’s never been any question that the Ink & Sigil series takes place in the same universe as the author’s Iron Druid Chronicles, it says so right there on the label. In the first book, also titled Ink & Sigil, there’s a lovely little side story about the evening that Al and Atticus met up in Rome and had a nice dinner together. It was a lovely little story, it set the time period for the new series nicely, but didn’t require that the reader have previously read the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil – it just made the story extra nice if you already had.

Now, with Paper & Blood, you really need to have read Ink & Sigil to get the full flavor of what’s going on in this second book. But with Atticus/Connor as an important secondary character, it will make a lot of readers feel like they need to have read at least some of the Iron Druid Chronicles to get everything that’s happening – and especially why it’s happening – in this book. I’ve read the first six books of that series (start with Hounded, it’s awesome) and intend to go back and finish, so I didn’t feel too lost when he became such a big part of this story, although it did make me itch to have read the ending of that series because it’s clearly part of the backstory for this. As much as I LOVED seeing Oberon again, I can’t help but imagine that anyone who hadn’t read at least some of the Iron Druid series would flounder a bit here. I hope I’m wrong.

So, this story provided a whole lot of closure for the Iron Druid Chronicles, provided Al with a lot more fascinating information about his friends and associates, engendered a whole lot of chuckles and a bit of outright laughter courtesy of Buck Foi, AND left me eagerly awaiting the next book in this series whenever it appears.

But I’m also holding my breath for the next book in The Seven Kennings, this author’s epic fantasy series, which seems to be titled A Curse of Krakens and is coming out a year from now. Obviously, this is a writer I really, really like and don’t care what I get next as long as I get something!

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