It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls a hundred feet high.
Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.
The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth – and the lives of one million humans – Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.
Full disclosure, I like Edward Cox. We’re friendly online and I was lucky enough to meet him last year in Brighton. The synopsis for his debut The Relic Guild sounded great, but you never know, right? Thus it was with a bit of trepidation that I started reading Ed’s novel, because what if I didn’t like it. Well, I’m pleased – and relieved – to say that while I had some issues with the narrative, The Relic Guild didn’t disappoint and on the whole I had a great time with the story.
So let’s just start off with the issues I had. These were mostly centred around the world building and the lack of a map. I know, how cliche to whine about the lack of a map, but in this case it would have really helped me because I spent a large part of the novel just having trouble figuring out where I was and visualising how Labrys Town looked. I couldn’t get to grips with the scale of the town and its surrounding labyrinth and though we do get some sense of the numbers and size of this universe about a third of the way in, I kept running up against how to visualise my surroundings. There is magic, but also ‘modern technology’ in the form of magic-powered pistols, trams, reflector helmet, and CCTV observation, yet society and the rest of their surroundings don’t feel modern, they feel more like a renaissance era setting. It was only once I decided to just go with it and had some good chunks of reading time to get stuck into the narrative, that I really got immersed in the story enough to not worry about how I should see it in my head and just follow the characters.
The story is told in two timelines, one during the Genii war and one set forty years after. In both timelines the central characters were young women. Clara, in the present timeline, is a new beginning for the Relic Guild and is our way into this mysterious organisation, while Marney is our window onto the past. I loved both of them for different reasons. Clara is very much the newbie drawn into the Guild and trying to find her feet and learning to accept her power. Hers is very much a coming-of-age story, while Marney already knows these things. If Clara is an apprentice Guild agent, Marney is at least a journeyman. Marney’s story is far more about figuring out why the Guild does what it does and how she fits within that mission.
There is some overlap between the agents we see in the two timelines, notably Samuel, Van Bam (I’m sorry but that name just makes me giggle), and Hamir. I found it fascinating to see them in these two incarnations; while it was a great way to get to know them better, it also created questions about how they ended up as they did. There are several agents we do not encounter in the present, the most important of which is Marney’s mentor Denton. I really liked this gentle, kind old man and the interaction between him and Marney.
The Relic Guild’s plot is well-constructed. I loved how the past timeline informed the current, allowing the reader to understand what is happening along with Samuel and Van Bam, but before Clara. I found both timelines equally compelling. They both centre on the same mystery, but where in Marney’s time we start with the question of who the culprit was, in Clara’s time we know who the culprit is, it just isn’t clear what he’s doing exactly. In Marney’s time they are trying to stop a war, while in the present they just might start one if they don’t stop a catastrophe from happening.
I enjoyed The Relic Guild tremendously. The characters were wonderful and their stories compelling. Cox leaves both timelines on a cliffhanger and with plenty of questions about our characters left unanswered. Such as what did Marney implant in Clara’s mind? What happened between Marney and Van Bam? How did the Genii war truly end and who is on the other side of the portal? I can’t wait to crack open the next book and find answers to these questions. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll also get my map. With The Relic Guild Cox delivers a strong debut and I look forward to reading more of his writing.