The Facefaker’s Game – Chandler J. Birch

The Facefaker’s Game – Chandler J. Birch

For fans of Brandon Sanderson and Scott Lynch, a fantasy about a clever young beggar who bargains his way into an apprenticeship with a company of thieving magicians and uses his newfound skills in a vendetta against a ruthless crime lord.

Ashes lives in Burroughside—the dirtiest, most crime-ridden district in the huge city of Teranis. His neighbors are gangs of fellow orphans, homeless madmen, and monsters that swarm the streets at nightfall. Determined to escape Burroughside, Ashes spends his days begging, picking pockets, and cheating at cards. When he draws the wrath of Mr. Ragged, Burroughside’s brutal governor, he is forced to flee for his life, only to be rescued by an enigmatic man named Candlestick Jack.

Jack leads a group of Artificers, professional magicians who can manipulate light with their bare hands to create stunningly convincing illusions. Changing a face is as simple as changing a hat. Ashes seizes an opportunity to study magic under Jack and quickly befriends the rest of the company: Juliana, Jack’s aristocratic wife; William, his exacting business partner; and Synder, his genius apprentice. But all is not as it seems: Jack and his company lead a double life as thieves, and they want Ashes to join their next heist. Between lessons on light and illusion, Ashes begins preparing to help with Jack’s most audacious caper yet: robbing the richest and most ruthless nobleman in the city.

A dramatic adventure story full of wit, charm, and scheming rogues, The Facefaker’s Game introduces an unforgettable world you won’t soon want to leave.

My usual rule of thumb is that any sentence in a blurb that says “for fans of $author” is most likely a bold lie by the marketing department. I decided to risk it, though, since I am indeed a huge fan of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, primarily for their likeable rogues in grim settings; and this time I wasn’t disappointed, because that’s exactly what I got.

I wasn’t disappointed in the least – though, rereading the blurb, it also describes the book as “picaresque,” and technically it isn’t, since it lacks the essential “episodic adventures” element. I’m always happy with a heist, though, and although the heist doesn’t end up being the central focus, there’s plenty of heist-like scheming along the way.

There’s also a wonderfully dark, grimy setting, with mysteries that, in this first book at least, are never resolved. Why do “rasas” turn up on the street with no memory, and where do they come from? Where do the animalistic people who roam the slums at night come from (and where do they go during the day)? We don’t know – and we don’t need to know. These are just among the realities the protagonist has to deal with, along with a cruel thief-lord and how to take vengeance on him, the difficulty of trusting his fellow rogues, his struggle to learn magic, the problem of keeping his friend safe, and periodic physical dangers as he attempts to solve his other problems.

The protagonist is well developed. A “rasa” who doesn’t remember his origins, he has an instinct of compassion and protection towards others who are weaker, and rebellion towards those who are stronger. (This means that, although the setting is indeed grim and dark, the book itself is not grimdark, much to my relief.) He’s one of those magically talented youngsters who show up so often in fantasy, but he struggles and works hard to learn magic, and has to have a moment of personal growth, not just desperate circumstances, to make a breakthrough. He’s believably untrusting of his benefactors, and all of his actions are credibly driven by internal and external conflicts, even the ill-advised ones.

The magic system is well thought out and essential to the plot. Although there is a minor bit of coincidence here and there to get the characters together (and to provide a magical tool, which isn’t too essential in the long run), it didn’t strain my disbelief.

As a minor quibble, the setting does have a fault which is a personal pet peeve of mine – biblical names in a setting where Christianity is explicitly absent – but I enjoyed everything else so much that I forgive it this time.

Apart from a few very minor typos in the pre-publication version I received from Netgalley for review, it’s cleanly written and generally extremely competent, especially for a first novel by a relatively young author.

Above all, though, it’s a gripping adventure with a character I wanted to see succeed, and who I want to read more about. I’m very glad that the ending points to a sequel, and I hope it’s as strong as the first.



This book review is by Mike Reeves-McMillan and originally appeared on Goodreads.. Mike writes the Gryphon Clerks novels, a series featuring heroic civil servants and engineers doing their best in a difficult world; the Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series, about underpowered magical practitioners stepping up to defend their city when nobody else will; and the Hand of the Trickster sword-and-sorcery series, in which a servant of the trickster god exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. His short stories have appeared in a number of professional and semiprofessional venues, including the Terry Pratchett tribute anthology In Memory.