The morally ambivalent Rojan Dizon makes his living tracking down run-aways and taking them home - whether they want to or not. That's no mean feat in a city the size of Mahala, given that it consists of layers of layers of buildings and streets built one upon another in a valley situated between two warring states. Key to Rojan's success is that he's a pain mage - someone who can use pain to accomplish magical feats - in his case, finding things and altering his face.
Pain magic's been banned in Mahala ever since the Archdeacon and the Ministry overthrew the tyrannical mage-king and banished the pain mages. If the Ministry discovers Rojan's abilities, then he'll be cast into the Pit - the lowest levels of the city populated by people dying from Synth - a power source that turned out to be poisonous and which triggered an environmental disaster.
When Rojan's estranged brother Perak is shot and his niece kidnapped, Rojan agrees to look for her. Doing so means venturing into the Pit where he discovers that Mahala has dirty secrets of its own and it soon becomes clear that Rojan's abilities hold the key to Mahala's future ...
Francis Knight's debut fantasy (the first in a trilogy) is a well-imagined story with a strong first-person voice and an intriguing premise that promises much for the rest of the trilogy.
Rojan portrays himself as a morally ambiguous womaniser who cares only for himself but this is belied by his actions from the start. I didn't mind that but it does take away from his supposed edge and there are times in the book where I'd have liked less personal angst given that his actions are never in doubt.
I loved Knight's depiction of Mahala, a dystopic city state ruled by a corrupt religion and more corrupt Ministry, damaged by an ecological disaster and with a literal underclass of the sick and dying. It's got a great noir-ish feel, especially the Pit and I loved the fact that it relies on factories and technology.
The story unfolds at a good pace and has plenty of twists to it. However the writing is a little baggy at times and in the last quarter it relies heavily on exposition and sudden revelations insufficiently set up earlier on.
All in all though, this is a solid debut and I shall definitely be reading on.