(I am a Harper Voyager Super Reader: HarperVoyager gives me free advance copies of upcoming science-fiction and fantasy titles, and in return I write honest reviews. This one is spoiler-free; I reveal nothing you couldn’t also find on the back cover.)
Eyal Kless, an Israeli professional violinist, of all things, has just published a brick-sized, brilliant work of science fantasy called The Lost Puzzler. It has a few notable flaws readers really can’t ignore, but the compelling, fascinating world Kless has built sticks in the brain and positively cries out for sequels and film treatments.
I’ll cover the book’s flaws first, both to finish laying out the negative elements first and because it was early in my reading that I was most aware of them. By the end, I was too sold on the world and the story to be troubled. Start with the title. The word “puzzle,” by definition, suggests an activity that is chosen, low-stakes, optional, not at all dire. “Puzzler” suggests a casual hobbyist. But the people actually described by this term, and what they do, and what they are, is the opposite of all those things. Kless created for his story a futuristic, dystopian world in which mechanical augmentations are as common as filled cavities are in ours. The main character, Rafik the Puzzler, is born into a family and a town that has religious beliefs based precisely on rejection of such alterations. Their Prophet railed against them in his holy writings. The Puzzler’s people blame the “Catastrophe,” which nearly wiped out humanity about a hundred years before the main story, on these non-“vegans.” (Side note: as someone who has been eating vegan for half a year, I was tickled by this use of the word.) Rafik thus lives among people guaranteed to hate and fear those rare few who, like him, have physical markings and natural abilities proclaiming his having been born to master Puzzling. “Puzzling” turns out to be a quasi-mystical, quasi-magical trance state of consciousness, and it can kill those who attempt any puzzle above their abilities. It’s literally a matter of life and death. I couldn’t say what other word would best replace “Puzzler,” but this one definitely doesn’t convey the fatefulness and urgency it refers to.
I’m going to have to nominate Kless for Worst-Named Villain Ever. Are you sitting down? The villain—who shows up early, recurs frequently, and is still around at the end—is named: Jakov. Jakov! Why not go whole hog, with Rub-one-out, or ‘Ave-a-wank? It’s annoyingly distracting every single repetition. (My previous record-holder was Stephen R. Donaldson, whose Big Bad Super-Evil Bossman in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was named: Lord Kevin.)
Let’s also acknowledge that for all Kless’s imaginative richness in world-building, his characters mostly fall into very familiar Stock Fantasy Types. We have the Reluctant Young Man from Nowhere who just happens to be the Chosen One. There’s even a widely known Prophecy he fulfills! We have the Criminally Underestimated Old Dude who will kick your whole army’s arse and then crack a joke. We have the Femme Fatale who is as sexy as she is deadly, and vice-versa. Jakov (ugh) solidly occupies the Extremely Focused Capitalist Sociopath category. And, straight out of anime, we have the Morally Inscrutable Mystery Man, here named Nakamura.
Listed together like this, The Lost Puzzler’s flaws might sound like they add up to a deal-breaker. But they absolutely don’t. Reading this book is like eating a whole giant extra-cheese pizza in a sitting: you know it’s not finally the best possible choice you could make, but DAMN is it good! No regrets! First, as noted above, the world-building is absolutely top-shelf. To go into a bit more detail: Rafik the Puzzler serves as main protagonist (the Chosen One). When he hits puberty and mysterious tattoos appear (and then grow) on his hands, he has to leave his suspicious village. I won’t spoil how he is thrown into the wider world, but I can say it was one of the most harrowing family scenes I’ve read in some time. The wider world shocks Rafik, and us as well. Numerous good and bad-guy factions fight over him, knowing that his Puzzler abilities make him invaluable. The pre-Catastrophe world turns out to have been a perfect illustration of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum: “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The populace then was unbelievably advanced, and it created super-powerful cities, highways, vehicles, and weapons. Limited quantities of such riches survived, and now the whole City of Towers thrives on the industry devoted to finding and reclaiming loot. Puzzlers, rare and prized, are required to open the puzzles that serve as locks.
Rafik’s story is the core. It occurred in the fairly recent past, and Kless reveals it in carefully measured pieces over the full course of the book. The characters around Rafik spend a lot of time speculating about what pre-Catastrophe life would have been like, and rightly so—it’s a fascinating topic. Around Rafik’s story, set in the present, is the story of our narrator, a junior member of a “Historians’ Guild.” He has been pursuing the Femme Fatale for some time, and catches up to her as the book begins. She proves indispensable in filling in the central story of who Rafik is, where he comes from, what he can do, and why it all matters. So to sum up the relevant time frames: there’s the world before the Catastrophe, the world about fifteen years ago, and the world today. This world is intricately detailed, alive, brightly colored, and completely compelling.
The one truly original character here makes a big impression: Martinn the “Supertrucker.” One important relic surviving from pre-Catastrophe days is “supertrucks.” They can travel multiple of hundreds of miles per hour on the ancient highways, gather and use power from the highway itself, and support a wide array of super-high-tech surveillance and communication equipment. Martinn insists his supertruck is much more than “just a machine,” and he seems to be right. Rafik first begins to demonstrate and develop his Puzzler abilities aboard the truck, and it’s the book’s most entertaining section.
Overall, Kless has created a gem that easily outshines its flaws. I earnestly entreat him to tell us more about this world in lots of future installments!