2019’s The Lost Puzzler is the first volume in Eyal Kless’ Tarakan Chronicles. It is a post-apocalyptic adventure.
The Catastrophe annihilated the Tarakans (who lived in high-tech enclaves on a distant-future Earth) and their enemies but it didn’t quite manage to kill every human on the planet. A few humans survived, scrounging what they can from the ruins. It’s a hard-scrabble life, full of unwanted adventure.
But adventures make good stories.
Ever since the Catastrophe, a few people have spontaneously developed tattoo-like markings on their hands. Those so marked are ostracized, exiled, even killed. (But not always; different societies, different mores.)
Rafik has had the bad luck to be born into a backward community of religious fanatics AND to develop the marks. If he stays with his family, he’ll be killed. Perhaps his family will be killed too. All he can do is flee.
It turns out that Rafik’s tattoos signify a very special ability. He’s a puzzler. He can enter the walled cities left behind by the long-defunct Tarakans. He is a valuable commodity to those who would explore and scavenge there.
The human remnant no longer remembers just who the Tarakans were, but they do know that treasures remain in the abandoned cities. The cities are protected by complex locks. If humans can open the locks, they can enter, explore, and loot. If they fail the puzzles posed by the locks, they die. Only puzzlers can pass the locks. Puzzlers have a unique ability to puzzle out the locks.
Rafik is enslaved, sold and sold again, and ends up as a guide, taking expeditions into the cities.
Was he killed in the city? Did he run away? It’s not clear what happened to him.
A low-ranked scribe is dispatched to track down Vincha, the one remaining eyewitness to Rafik’s final dungeon dive. Failure to learn her story would humiliate the scribe. He doesn’t know that success could be lethal.
This is a weighty tome that eschews straightforward narrative. There are three or four storylines (depending on how you make sense of things). Quite a lot of the action is revealed in reminiscences — in the case of Rafik’s, almost always second hand — which aren’t always revealed in the order in which events actually occurred. There are many many road-trips, most of which involve a lot of gunplay.
This book was an ambitious venture, which may explain why it took the author a quarter of a century to finish it. IMHO, the author was more ambitious than skilled. The pacing was uneven; there were too many slow passages that could have been trimmed. The characters are functional rather than sympathetic.
It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia! It’s a mystery! The patient scribe (never named) tracks down and interviews witnesses. The book even features a classic drawing-room revelation scene (except that the scene takes place in a dungeon surrounded by ravening monsters).
This wasn’t quite my cup of tea. However, readers who enjoy tales of combat archaeology and RPG-like tales of explorations in abandoned cities might enjoy this novel.