THE INGENIOUS by Darius Hinks
Angry Robot, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Michael Dodd
A wild, imaginative original fantasy story from Darius Hinks, The Ingenious is a tale of political exiles surviving in the slums of a grand, magic-imbued city and a reluctant figurehead struggling to come to terms with her fate. It’s a story about power – how it’s found and seized, and what it can do to someone – and control, about inequality and injustice, and about magic, drug abuse and gang warfare. It’s a book crammed full of bold ideas, and it’s the sort of story which requires the reader to jump in and trust that it’ll all make sense in the end.
The city of Athanor travels between realms by the power of the Curious Men and their alchymia, collecting new lives and adding them to its mind-boggling melting pot of characters, cultures, races and rivalries. One such group calls themselves the Exiles, having long ago fled to Athanor from their homeland to escape its political turmoil. They’re led (sort of) by Isten – when she’s not drunk, high or otherwise engaged in dubious recreational pursuits – as they scrape a living in Athanor’s shadier districts, all the while dreaming of somehow returning home one day. When Isten returns to the Exiles after having sunk to her lowest ebb yet, a chance encounter offers her the opportunity to at least lead the Exiles to a position of relative power within Athanor’s criminal underworld.
Athanor is the sort of setting that sprawls in the imagination, populated by a seemingly endless range of ne’er-do-wells and offering a wild variety of locations and challenges for the story. The plot echoes that, rambling from scene to scene as Hinks slowly teases out the narrative; the focus is on Isten and to a lesser extent Phrater Alzen – one of the Curious Men – but Athanor itself has a powerful presence, from squalid slums to glorious palaces. It’s a story which definitely rewards readers who are happy to sit back and watch as things gradually start to make sense, but there’s so much to enjoy in exploring the city that even if things are going a little slowly for you there should be enough to keep you entertained along the way.
If the plot is a little dense, it’s rich and rewarding once things click, and Isten proves to be a fascinating protagonist. There aren’t really any traditionally ‘good’ characters here, and Isten exemplifies that – in many respects, she’s weak and self-serving, willing to use and manipulate people to get what she needs, but she’s also painfully self-aware and capable of great things despite how far she falls. The plot takes full advantage of her tortured past and dubious nature, and while some of the arcs are perhaps not fully worked through (one strand featuring a tangible link to the Exiles’ past doesn’t really go anywhere), overall it comes together into a powerful and thoroughly entertaining whole.