This book is chock full of yes. The main character, Anna Wei, is a brilliant combination of punk, sorcerer, and exhausted bureaucrat trying to have a second life outside of her job, one that clashes completely with the secret government agency she works for. She is likable enough instantly to root for out of the gate, when her squad is commanded to mop up a zombie infestation in a DC apartment building.
The world in Hand of Chaos is richly textured, a layer of invisible magic and political intrigue interwoven with government organizations of the US. Though their aims are basically the protection of American citizens, the Greys of the NSA, the Churchies of the DoD and the Flamers of the CIA go about things in very different ways. Their departments are envisioned, full of bored cubicle-working summoners, strict and thorough requisitions secretaries, and even the security guard at the magical practice arena gets an interesting little mini-bio. All these serve to add more depth to the multilayered and many-faceted magical system the author has obviously taken some serious time to come up with. There are magical workshops. Awesome.
The plot is a double helix, in which Anna and squad desperately try to play catch up to bad boy Ethan, necromancer in service to some serious demonic entities. Not only does Ethan have powerful backup, but he is combining necromantic magic in ways the world has never seen. Anna’s people, by contrast, have budget and personnel crunches, paperwork and briefings, aforementioned workshops, and higher ups to please. Plus, as they’re reminded constantly, they have bureaucratic garbage and political rivals to deal with.
All these factors bring Hand of Chaos to life, like the book is a zombie reanimated through Death Magic and sent on a rampage to eventually transform into a revenant and tear the reader apart.
So why the four stars? Right…
There are three main problems with the book, and all are pretty miniscule. The first is that the world of Hand of Chaos is so thick with magic and organizations and faces and history that plenty of it is spent on exposition. Actually this isn’t really the problem, as the author handles most of it very well. What aren’t effective are the multi-paragraph blocks of expository dialogue by various characters. It feels as if the author pulled these chunks of text out of the narrative and slapped quotes on either side. The result feels wooden and out of character for Anna, Roy, and others.
Second, there are far more minor spelling, punctuation and grammar issues than there should be. They trip up an otherwise stellar read.
Third, plenty of fantasy and urban fantasy books work on a sort of ascending scale (especially series works) where the main character has to find reserves of power within him/herself in order to battle the super badguy. This ultimately leads to something like going Super Saiyan level two. In the following book, the author is then forced to make an even more powerful badguy, and then has no recourse but to make the main character suddenly (to keep up the thrill of the book) develop even MORE badass powers. It’s a hideous cycle that has utterly ruined series after series for me. While this book focuses on the many, varied intricacies and difficulties in learning different spheres of magic, and while Anna ultimately uses what’s in her cranium (yay for brainpower!), the finale of the Hand of Chaos left me feeling proud and frustrated at the same time. Since I’m almost certain this is an issue only I have, it’s a super tiny one.
Overall, this book is well worth the read, given my three tiny issues with it. Fans of Jim Butcher will love the supernatural romp up and down the Washington DC area. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can see more of Anna Wei in the future.