No Deadly Thing by Tiger Gray is the author’s debut novel and the second book in the Twisted Tree series published by Hard Limits Press. The story is set in the American Pacific Northwest and the author fuses the tenets of good and evil of the ancient Zoroastrian religion and philosophy with the theme of environmental contamination to write an elaborate urban fantasy tale that also interweaves strong elements of action/adventure and mystery. The writing is refined and textured and well serves the plot, world building and characterisation.
Ashrinn Pinecroft has spent a lifetime trying to forget his Anglo-Persian family’s expulsion from his native Iran. He’s a career soldier serving in Iraq as the leader of the elite American anti-terrorist unit, Delta Force. When a sniper’s bullet cuts Ashrinn’s career short, he wakes up in an infirmary tent not sure of his reality or whether he’s hallucinating the silver-haired man standing at the foot of his bed. The man is named Randolph and he is the leader of the Order of the White Eagle, a group of magicals on a mission to rid the evil that is infecting the Pacific Northwest. Randolph enlists Ashrinn to lead a group of paladins (warriors) in the fight against this evil force.
The Zoroastrian myths Ashrinn’s mother entertained him with as a child have found new, twisted life in the streets of Seattle, and he has a central role to play in the fight against destruction, whether he likes it or not. Ashrinn must use his newfound divine powers to save the Pacific Northwest from an evil snake-handling cult that is contaminating the waters with its magic, killing both magicals and humans. The cult is also hell bent on sacrificing Ashrinn to their demon god. With a ragtag group of warriors that call themselves The Storm, that includes a half crazy werewolf, a psychic sniper, and his equally blessed best friend and former Delta team mate Malkai (Mal) Tielhart at his side, Ashrinn will do everything in his power to combat the corruption. But sometimes the greatest horror imaginable and the things held most dear are one and the same, and corruption is not so easily spotted when it hits close to home.
The opening scene of this novel in which Ashrinn, Mal and the Delta Force team attempt to take the City of Tirkit (Iraq) and become entangled in a skirmish with pro-Saddam supporters is pure adrenaline rush and immediately pulled me into the story.
The world building is intricate and well thought-out and the central themes of the plot are based on Zoroastrian religious concepts of the one transcendent and abundant principle of creation, truth and order (good), and the destructive forces of chaos (evil). The author has created a highly complex world in which the magical and mundane both co-exist and sometimes collide. The magical world is inhabited by a multi-faceted society of gnomes, dryads, fae, were creatures, psychics and a plethora of other supernaturals. Each group of magicals possesses their own physical and mental powers and role within the nomenclature of the supernatural world, and most use their powers for the good of both the natural and supernatural worlds and their inhabitants. However, within the supernatural world there are also elements of evil in the form of a snake cult that uses its powers to infect and destroy both magical and human beings by contaminating the water.
Characterisation of both the primary and recurring secondary characters is equally strong in this novel, with an extremely intelligently written and rich third person narration by Ashrinn, which is complemented by the perspectives of Mal and Mal’s daughter Luicy (Lui).
Ashrinn is a strong protagonist and his manner of being is firmly rooted in the Zoroastrian concept of good. He exemplifies the central tenets of Zoroastrian religion in that as the leader of The Storm he actively strives to do good and is focused on obliterating the evil that threatens the world. He is married to Kiriana (Kir) and has a son Coran and from the start there is a well-nuanced unease between Ashrinn and his wife and a distance between Ashrinn and his son. In part, this is due to Ashrinn’s absence from the family as a career soldier and the difficulties of reintegrating into civilian life, as well as his preoccupation and priority of ridding the world of evil. But as the story progresses and the chasm between Ashrinn and Kir widens, Ashrinn’s growing unease and mistrust of his wife hints at the possibilities of something darker and more sinister.
Mal is also a very well written secondary character and as Ashrinn’s right hand in the training of the warrior magicals he plays a very prominent role in the fight against the evil cult. Mal is married to Raietha and has four children. But family life is equally difficult for Mal as his youngest daughter, Rosi, is very ill and his oldest daughter Liu is experiencing a difficult puberty. These stresses often cause strain in Mal’s relationship with his wife.
The author devotes a good portion of the story exploring the complexities of Ashrinn and Mal and their equally complex relationship, and in this draws out both characters through their rich third person introspection, but also through some intelligently written and well-nuanced dialogue. From the very beginning of the story there is heightened sexual tension between Ashrinn and Mal giving the impression that there is something much more going on than deep platonic love and loyalty between the two. Ashrinn is quite open and comfortable with his bisexuality and his sexual attraction to Mal is obvious. Mal has difficulty in dealing with his attraction to Ashrinn and the possibility that he may be gay, owing to his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and a very difficult relationship with his father. This sexual tension creates a “push me pull you” dynamic between the two characters throughout most of the story until a threat to Ashrinn’s life prompts Mal to work through and accept his feelings for his best friend.
The central plot of the story – the quest to find and destroy the evil snake cult – in general unfolds in a manner that is well interwoven with the exploration of the characters and their relationships as the author takes the reader deeper into the world of the magicals. The only area where I felt the story faltered slightly is in respect of its pacing, specifically as it relates to the amount of story time devoted to Ashrinn and Mal’s training of the paladins and their preparation for the war with the evil force. I felt that this slowed plot advancement a little too much at mid-story before it once again picked up in preparation for the story’s climax and ending.
There are many twists in respect of the plot during the latter part of the story and the character of Liu plays a prominent role as a catalyst in the showdown with the evil magicals. The story’s ending took me completely by surprise, is as equally exciting as the story’s beginnings, and left me wanting for more. Another unexpected but very pleasant surprise was the brief mention of the main characters from The Wicked Instead, the first book in the Twisted Tree Series. I hope this signals a more substantive intersection between the characters of both books in future instalments of the series.
I vacillated between a 3.5 and 4 star rating for this novel because of the pacing issues. But, in the end the good writing won over and prompted the 4 star rating. Overall, I enjoyed No Deadly Thing. It is a well-written, engaging and intelligent story of fantasy, action, adventure and intrigue with many twists and turns along the way and with some very good characterisation and well-written dialogue. Although No Deadly Thing is a companion to The Wicked Instead, it can be read as a single title.