by J. C. McCrae

Rating: ★★★

Pact is what happened after the fantastically triumphant Worm. In it, we see a young adult plunged into a world of magic, a world of ancient pacts and karmic debt, of oaths enforced by a universal device. Demons and goblins, angels, ghosts and fairies all work within simple laws, and practitioners stake out their claims on the world using them.

I really love Pact's premise. This is one of the most intriguing, most intricate bits of urban fantasy world building. I didn't know this at the time, but it blows Neverwhere out of the water. It would make a fantastic game, if anyone could figure out how to implement it. Who wouldn't want to choose an implement and a familiar, stake out a claim to a demesne, and forge alliances amongst the local powers, building themselves up from nothing?

Pact also has a great underlying theme. In this world of connections and ties, of realpolitik and local squabbles, the theme beneath it all is family. Even though our protagonist detests his family, who are to a large degree an array of sociopathic possibilities, he comes to rely on them as much as he relies on his few 'real' friends. Once their interests are aligned, they fight with him, and they are assets in the war against the outside world.

Those two great concepts, together with the specific flavours applied, should have made this an excellent book. But it's not, and instead of enthusing about it I mourn it. The thing that killed Pact was the pacing and the violence. Almost every chapter, the protagonist is stumbling directly from one fight to the next, losing something, persevering past something, but always winning. Even as I marvel at the intricate relationships and fantastic characters, I grow tired of this relentless battling, always with the same cadences, never with time to relax, all reflection taking place mid-battle, as the protagonist reaches for reserves of reserves of reserves in their sixtieth consecutive fight to the death.

This setting, this story, deserved better. This world deserved drawn out-conflicts, blows exchanged as if in a chess game, internal development to match external threat. It didn't get it. Wildbow is a skillful writer, and integrates commentary on this pacing into the story, but it is fundamentally flawed nonetheless.