Keith R.A. DeCandido is best known for his Star Trek books. Now he’s decided to branch out into his own world, at least for a little while. Dragon Precinct is his first original novel, and here’s hoping there are some more. I’m not sure how many books such a series can sustain, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these characters again. Dragon Precinct takes fantasy conventions (elves, halflings, dwarves, and magic) and uses them for an interesting murder mystery. The solution comes a little out of left field, but that doesn’t hurt the book too badly.
Gan Brightblade is one of the world’s biggest heroes. He and his friends have defeated many a monster and evil wizard, including the ultra-evil wizard Chalmraik. They are in Cliff’s End for an unknown reason, but Gan is destined to stay there: dead. Half-elven detective Danthres Tresyllione and her partner, Torin ban Wyvald, are tasked with finding out who murdered him - and, more importantly, how. No magic of any kind can be detected, and he has no visible wounds. Even worse, Gan was a friend of the Lord and Lady of Cliff’s End, and they are putting great pressure on the detectives to solve the mystery quickly. What do Gan’s friends know about this, and will any of them survive to tell? Is Chalmraik back from the dead? And can they solve the murder before Danthres herself kills somebody?
Dragon Precinct is a quick read, but that’s not a bad thing. DeCandido gives us some interesting characterization that bends the molds of the typical fantasy characters. Some of it is old-hat (both elves and humans hate half-elven offspring; elves are rather haughty), but there are just enough differences to keep the book from feeling derivative. Danthres has a chip on her shoulder that would seem impossible to carry around, but she’s still fun to read about. Her temper gets the best of her at times, even with her friends. We learn early that she didn’t have the best childhood, being one of those rare half-elves who survive past birth, and given the worst facial features of both races. Unfortunately, we don’t find out the reason why until the very end of the book, where she deigns to explain everything to her friends. This feels a little awkward, though unloading herself does finally give her some of the freedom she needs to be a better person.
Torin is also intriguing, with his ex-soldier background. He once served with the current commander of the police force in the army, and he carries some of that baggage. He has his own informants in various shady areas of town, is able to use some of his military skills in his job, and makes a very good foil for Danthres. He’s also occasionally her lover, though that doesn’t seem to have affected their working relationship. It’s a very casual relationship which jumps off the page. He’s the only one who can talk sense into Danthres when she’s willing to lose her job rather than apologize to somebody.
The rest of the characters are given interesting hooks and are fairly well-rounded, but the book isn’t really about them. There are two other sets of partners who figure prominently in the book, perhaps too prominently. The inclusion of their cases gives the book almost a “day in the life” feel which doesn’t really fit with the plot itself, almost as if there wasn’t enough plot to fill even the book's 237 pages. They’re interesting characters, but they seem a bit out of place other than to flesh out the precinct. Osric, the captain, plays the typical gruff captain’s role, being there mainly to yell at his detectives or for them to report to.
The other problem is that the solution seems to come from nowhere: a chance comment from the forensic wizard suddenly sparks a thought that ends up solving everything. Even worse, it’s a comment that the wizard, if he wasn’t so arrogant, would probably have made earlier, though of course it may not have meant anything to the detectives earlier. It’s really the only fault of the mystery part of the story. As for the other detectives’ cases, they are solved perfunctorily, as well - even more so. While Torin and Danthres’ case takes center stage, the other cases are in the book just enough to detract from it, making the novel as a whole seem a bit disjointed.
Even with these problems, Dragon Precinct is an enjoyable read. DeCandido’s prose is fairly solid and the dialogue is quite good as well. He seems to let loose with the swear words a little bit, as if he’s felt inhibited doing too many Star Trek books, so if swearing is a problem for you, stay away from it. The good characters help save the fact that their cases are solved way too easily, making only the end of the book weaker than it really should be. If a lot of Danthres’ background that’s revealed in the last few pages had been sprinkled throughout the rest of the book, I don’t think any part of the book would have dragged. If a police procedural in a magical fantasy world sounds like your cup of tea, you really can’t go too wrong with Dragon Precinct.