2018’s Rat’s Maze is the first volume in M. E. S. Gibson’s Avalon City Vice fantasy-noir series.
Humans come to Avalon City in search of magical wonders. They bring with them human vices like drugs. Confronted with unfamiliar challenges, the ferals native to Avalon City have responded by copying human solutions. Thus the Avalon City Police Department. Thus ACPD Vice, charged with containing the city’s drug trade.
Detective Reis “Rat” Attalus is a vice cop. His partner just died and the week looks like it is only going to get worse.
Determined to get inside Sharl Opaliss’ operation, Rat leans on low level dealer Kel Desette to introduce Rat to Kel’s immediate boss Gerandus. The infiltration goes off more or less as planned. Posing as a man with connections, money and a Plan, Rat inveigles his way into Opaliss’ organization.
It’s not clear how Opaliss went from being a mid-level crook to a mob boss. Opaliss’ predecessor Fango and most of Fango’s lieutenants died in a hail of bullets. Did Opaliss orchestrate the killings or is he simply an opportunist who stepped in to replace his late boss? Where did Opaliss get the resources to take over? And why is he dabbling in a drug notorious for its lethal side effects when safer drugs would make him more money?
What is clear is that Opaliss didn’t become head of what may well be Avalon City’s biggest operation by being unduly trusting. Rat is convincing enough for Opaliss to provisionally cooperate with the supposed drug dealer. That will last just as long as it takes for Opaliss to discover Rat is an undercover cop. And at the rate Rat’s informants are turning up dead, that won’t take long.
Rat’s situation is complicated by the fact that he’s keeping a large secret from his co-workers. He’s half-human. The full-blood ferals of Avalon City look down on mixies. It only adds to Rat’s problems that his mother was lowborn; if his background were exposed, he would have inherited no status from his mom. ACPD would fire Rat for being mixed race if they were to find out. His former co-workers might do much worse.
His situation gives Rat a unique perspective on the cognitive differences between humans and ferals, which are less due to the magic in which the ferals are immersed and more do with a small but influential difference in brain chemistry. Ferals produce less vasopressin and oxytocin than do humans. Their behavior reflects this: humans see ferals as “remorseless, antisocial, calculating and opportunistic, morose, gloomy, incapable of empathy, with little capacity for love or loyalty” . Ferals also seem to have a remarkable capacity for risk-taking behavior.
Having established the ferals as a society of sociopaths, the novel then undermines that view. Ferals may not be as good at forming bonds as are humans, but they do form them. Some of them value their loved ones enough to frame their entire lives around those bonds, regardless of the risks involved. The criminals of Avalon City can be a homicidal lot, but they are no worse than the low lives of human cities.
This book delivers pretty much what one would expect from a noir. If you’re looking for morose detectives, dames the detectives probably shouldn’t trust, seemingly affable crooks they definitely shouldn’t trust, garnished with self-destructive behavior all round, then this is probably the book you were looking for.
Rat’s Maze is available here (Amazon). I could not find it on Chapters-Indigo.
1: One of the drugs flooding Avalon City is one that temporarily imbues ferals with human levels of neurotransmitters so they can revel in messy human emotions.