Max Frei, the cigarette-puffing gumshoe in an alternate, magical universe, is back in his namesake creator’s sophomore entry in the Labryinths of Echo series.
Echo is a sprawling city-state in which Frei the character finds it very easy to get himself in trouble. Frei the creator (The Stranger, 2009) is a Russian born long ago enough to remember the good old days of the Cold War, and there are international intrigues and intrapalace coups enough to assure that there’s trouble to be had. With sidekick Sir Juffin Hully, Frei the character, a lazybones layabout by inclination, finds the start of it in a coming-out party of sorts hosted by one General Boboota Box, late a victim of food poisoning engineered by who knows who and therefore an intimate of the local outhouses—indeed, unlike the rest of the homes of Echo, which “had at least three or four bathing tubs,” the General’s abode has “a dozen toilets of various heights gurgling a discordant welcome to the visitor.” And who did this dastardly deed? Well, Echo is a world of all sorts of plots, a sort of Krypton with tobacco and the counter-universe’s equivalent of vodka. If you have the sense that a shaggy-dog story is in the offing, you’d be right—and what a dog, and what a tail wagging it. Frei the creator takes obvious goofy pleasure in constructing and populating a place in which rival magicians duke it out, good and evil are not always easily identifiable and are sometimes rolled up in the same person, and where a contraption called a “baboom” is enough to put the fear in your garden-variety brigand. It’s all a great romp, and never mind that the logic of the place seems a tad off and various threads of plot get lost amid the fun.
As Juffin says, brightly, “this affair smells strongly of Forbidden Magic.” Just so—and a pleasure for those who like their fantasy with a measure of slapstick.