Title: Mad Lizard Mambo
Author: Rhys Ford (Twitter)
Rating: Incredibly Enjoyable
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Dragons, Fae and Sidhe, Alternate Earths, Queer Fiction
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Publisher: DSP Publications
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher (via Netgalley) in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in this review are my own. (Also: there’s a lot more disjointed squeeing than “real” reviewing here. My bad.)
Mad Lizard Mambo, the second book in Rhys Ford’s Kai Gracen series, is almost everything I’ve been wailing about wanting in urban fantasy. It’s casually and delightfully queer, full of characters of color (and non-human characters coded as characters of color) who aren’t stereotypes or sidekicks, and on top of that, there are freaking dragons everywhere.
Look, if I didn’t know how the publishing process worked, I’d just assume that I willed Rhys Ford into writing this book just by wanting it to exist badly enough.
The titular Kai Gracen is an elfin chimaera, the product of an unsidhe experiment to create more powerful ainmhi dubh (black “dogs” used for Hunts). Kai grew up in deplorable conditions and was abused from birth until he was stolen by a guard and then lost in a hand of poker to a Stalker or monster hunter who raised him.
It’s pretty heavy stuff (and Ford does describe some of the abuse that Kai underwent). One of the constants throughout Mad Lizard Mambo though, is that there’s so much understanding and warmth directed towards Kai when his heritage comes up.
Kai has gone through – and is still dealing with – the realities of his “childhood” and what his bio-dad did to him. Throughout the book, he learns a bit more about what he is and what he can do and it frightens him because he worries that he’s going to be just as bad as the man who created him. And the people around him care for him and love him nonetheless. They let him know that they don’t think of him as a monster and that they love him because of who he is, not despite that.
That’s something that’s just super important to me. (Which… is kind of obvious considering it’s like one of the first things I even thought to say about this book…)
Okay so Mad Lizard Mambo‘s plot revolves around Kai going on a quest to bolster fae fertility via some artifact or missing city that was abandoned by both the sidhe and the unsidhe back when the Merge – a collision of “our” universe and the fae’s universe – occurred. Kai ends up going along with the “too kind for his own good” sidhe lord Ryder, a bumbling assistant named Robbie, and a whole lot of guns in order to get to the bottom of things and maybe keep the elfin population from plummeting.
The plot is pretty tight and, if you’re like me and didn’t read the first book until after this one, it’s surprisingly easy to follow along with. While the relationships between characters could be murky at points, by the midpoint of the book I was pretty clear on what the characters meant to one another.
I think my favorite relationship (in progress) is the one between Kai and Ryder. There’s a ton of “push and pull”, “will they, won’t they” stuff throughout. Kai is relatively new to his freedom and so the idea of being in a relationship with anyone, much less a bossy lord of the Dawn Court who keeps hanging around being all nice and attractive, is something that he’s clearly uncomfortable with. But they trust each other and by the end of the book, I’m pretty sure they’re heading towards some kind of happy (or happy-for-now) ending.
Their relationship is just so good.
I mean, a lot of times in Urban Fantasy, it’s hard to root for the romance because one or both characters is an unrepentant Alpha Asshole who just needs to change. But not here. Because yeah, Kai is rough around the edges and rightfully skittish, but it’s a first person POV book so we’re in Kai’s head and watching him kind of figure out how to react to Ryder as they go through some serious shit. Also Ryder is one of the people there when Kai realizes what he is and what he can do (in terms of elfin power and stuff) and he’s still like “yes, this is the guy I want to have a life with some day and maybe even some babies“)
I just… I just really love these dudes.
Mad Lizard Mambo also has fantastic female characters (like Sparky – who kind of helped “raise” Kai – and Cari – a fellow Stalker who is probably my favorite character in the book after the mains). And we also get to see Jonas and Dempsey, two of Kai’s father-ish figures who are legit great. (Jonas is poly and has loving spouses of multiple genders!!)
And okay, y’all know that I’m absolutely obsessed with meaty worldbuilding because there’s just so much potential for exploration.
If I start to feel the urge to write fan fiction for your series before I’ve even finished reading, you’ve done a good job. I think I hit the end of the first chapter after Kai goes toe to toe with a dragon and was like “well, once I finish reading, I need to see if the author has worldbuilding posts up because I need to write some small kind of ficcage”.
I think, with regards to the writing and worldbuilding, I had only two issues that stood out:
- Italicized text that wasn’t in English (Here’s a video by Daniel José Older that talks about this – with regard to Spanish text though.)
- I get that this is a future/alternate Earth where humans are too busy battling against the Elfin threats (the fauna that came along with them and particularly dickish un/sidhe), but as my blog followers all know, I’m not a huge fan of fantastical racism or allegories/metaphors that use racism against non-human characters as a stand in for “real world” oppression. So the message of “non-humans are the oppressed ones” in a book with a main character coded to be a MOC (as he’s not human) leaves me kind of frowny so I’m hoping that future books don’t focus on it unless there’s more to it than metaphors/alleories for “real world” oppression.
That being said, I enjoyed the hell out of Mad Lizard Mambo. It really exceeded my expectations and left me with a desire for more of the world. Here’s hoping that either the next book in the series comes out soonish (because I adore Kai so much already) or that Rhys Ford has plans for universe expansion.