Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.
Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!
The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.
So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.
But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.
Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!
The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.
Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.
So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.