The Year of the Knife by G. D. Penman
Published by: Meerkat Press
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Mystery
Reviewed by: Edwin & Alex
What to Expect: Fun, ambitious, mostly successful queer urban fantasy featuring a kickass heroine, tons of magic, and an alternative history of the good ol’ US of A.
Plot: Agent – Sully – Sullivan is one of the top cops in the Imperial Bureau of Investigation. A veteran witch of the British Empire who isn’t afraid to use her magical skills to crack a case. But Sully might need more than a good education and raw power to stop the string of grisly murders that have been springing up across the American Colonies. Every one of them marked by the same chilling calling card, a warning in the form of a legion of voices screaming out through the killers’ mouths: It IS tHe YEAr oF the KNife.
Sully’s investigation will drag her away from the comforts of home in New Amsterdam, the beautiful but useless hyacinth macaw that used to be her boss, and the loving arms of her undead girlfriend, in a thrilling race against time, demonic forces and a shadowy conspiracy that will do anything to keep its hold on power and ensure that Sully takes their secrets to her grave, as soon as possible.
G.D. Penman’s imaginative The Year of the Knife is a fun, fast-paced urban fantasy mystery with an engaging set of characters, most notably Agent Sully of the Imperial Bureau of Investigation.
Review: This review is what happened when Edwin and Alex independently read this and started twitter convos about what we thought. Then, came the focus questions, which we answered below.
Q: Sully, the main character in The Year of the Knife, is fairly unlikable in any conventional sense. Why does this appeal so much?
Edwin: She IS unlikeable and I love it. She has no real friends outside of work colleagues, her sex life consists of picking up pretty young things at bars and ill-advised tumbles with her ex-girlfriend. She has no time for social niceties, dresses as she wishes, and still acts pretty much like the slightly bigoted, arrogant military officer she once was. These are all things that leading women are not allowed to be, and Penman’s choice to do so is to be applauded. I should add that it only works because he also does a great job making her sparklingly charismatic despite all her sharp edges.
Alex: Unlikable and imperfect — and why shouldn’t she be? Well, you might say, there’s a problem with this lens. On the one hand, she’s a badass, kickass, uncompromising, serial killer catching, saver of the world. On the other, she’s complicit in marginalizing others. For example, despite her being a powerful woman in her own right, there isn’t a single female in this book that exists outside of her sexual gaze. She’s also guilty of playing the ‘acceptable losses’ card with innocent civilians. Furthermore, she gets to be in a position of power, despite not particularly wanting to be there, she does little to help close colleagues suffering under threat of deportment or worse. Her journey of facing these behaviors makes her redeemable, though they tend to happen at a snail’s pace since her effort is focused more on catching baddies than on self-reflection. Hence, my original point.
Q: The Year of the Knife is set in something closely resembling the present day, but in a fantasy timeline with an alternate history where the United States is still part of the British Empire (which still exists). How well was this done? How does it affect the narrative and world-building?
Alex: Loved the concept of New Amsterdam and the idea of how we could have got there. How many ways could things have gone differently with the American Revolution such that the US had not won independence? Or won it later? Or lost the Mexican American war? Or the Louisiana Purchase went pear-shaped and we somehow became a French-speaking country? Or First Nations having autonomy? These could be fascinating things to consider but the ending didn’t work for me because some facts cherry-picked and modified to suit the story rather than using actual history to create a more meaningful turning point to create the alternate history. That said, I liked the larger repercussions of what might have happened without the US’ Imperial landgrab and think it’s an opportunity to develop more books in this series. For me, this is why most of this book is stellar and also why the ending falls short.
Edwin: I second Alex’s point: the “what if” scenario is one of the things that makes the book really interesting, but if the historical details matter to you, it plays a little too fast and loose with some things to be entirely satisfying. That said, I particularly liked what it did with the world outside North America. It asks “what happens if UK is tied up in US long-term,” adds a magical disaster in continental Europe, and thereby entirely erases the scramble for Africa from history. We’re left with a powerful imperial state in Africa and quite different geopolitics than in the present day. It’s a real testament to Penman’s imagination, and a world I want to read more about.
Q: The two questions above were about the setting and characters in the novel. Turning now to the technical elements, how do we feel about how the book was written?
Edwin: The prose is what grabbed me. Penman writes with flair, humour, and ambition. He clearly has a lot of talent, and I’m excited to read more by him for that reason. That said, the pacing and structure of the novel is a little off. The first 80% reads like a paranormal mystery in the vein of Ben Aaronovitch, done really well. There is then an abrupt shift, and the last 20% feels like the end of quite a different novel. The transition didn’t work well for me.
Alex: You got hit with similarities to Aaronovitch (who I really need to read) but I got a whiff of Pratchett. The mystery element seemed, at times, to be a vehicle for comedy, the absurdity of which had me laughing out loud–in public, no less–on several occasions. That last 20%, though…it is such a shame it was included as is. The transition didn’t work. Had it been a parallel story arc threading through the entire novel, it would have built tension and drama in additional making more sense. Nevertheless, G.D. Penman’s style is infectious and wonderful. I’ll be keeping my eye out for next works for sure.
What you may not like:
Edwin: If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t really find one here. It’s an urban fantasy with a minor romantic subplot, not a romance. Also, honestly, you will probably be disappointed by the somewhat rushed, confusing ending.
Alex: If you’re the sort to become pedantic when events triggering alternative histories haven’t been accurately portrayed, this book may annoy you. The ideas are clever but the facts aren’t particularly well researched. There is a running commentary featuring fatphobic, homophobic, ableist, racist, and many othering statements that, in context, may be a clever lashing out against such things. But they also may not. Finally, I second Edwin’s comments on the rushed ending.
What you will love:
Alex: I could talk about strong, well-defined characters that often surprised me, the magical, urban world they lived in, and the social commentary on the power structures that exist and how people find ways of working around them. Ultimately, though, this book is damn fun. It’s playful and absurd, and it knocked me off guard in the best way possible. I mean–no spoilers or anything but–Eugene the Sailor Doll alone made this book worth reading.
Edwin: Wild imagination, sparkling prose, and absurdist fun. The worldbuilding, I mentioned above, is fascinating, but I agree with Alex that it’s the sense of fun that stays with me. The mind that thought up the aforementioned Eugene the Sailor Doll and Director Hyacinth Macaw is one worth following.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else?
Connect with Edwin on Twitter: @gaybookgeek