John Golden: Freelance Debugger by Django Wexler – Novella Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the first ever urban fantasy novella from Django Wexler, the start of a new series and published by Ragnarok Publications.
“A great mix of technology and magic, John Golden: Freelance Debugger is a hilarious, fun and action-packed novella.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
One of the things that I find crucial for urban fantasy settings is that they really need to make themselves come across as unique. There’s only so many stories that can be told about vampires and werewolves and witches and wizards before they all start to merge together into one giant ball of CLICHE. A good execution of cliches and tropes can only go so far. I’ve read a handful of urban fantasy stories in the last couple years, featuring the above-mentioned characters and while there have been ones that I really enjoyed, there have also been ones that I didn’t. For me, the most unique have been the Split Worlds novels by Emma Newman, which have all been rather good, start to finish. Their one defining thing: they are stories about Faeries and the Fae, a character/race/species type that I haven’t yet come across in my reading all that much. And that’s where Django Wexler’s John Golden: Freelance Debugger comes in.
In this new series of novellas about the character John Golden, Django has created an alternate world where magic is real in the sense that faeries and gremlins and others of their ilk are real and very much a thriving subsection of the supernatural society. Particularly, the faeries in this world love to inhabit computer networks and exist in a pseudo-online sphere where they create burrows inside these networks. Essentially, they are like a virus. And John Golden is a freelance debugger who is called in to clear these networks and his is quite the respected, and essential, profession as far as the IT industry is concerned.
When this story starts, John is called in by the head of a software firm that is about to launch a new AntiFae software. There has been a sudden faerie invasion in the company’s networks, all under very mysteriou s circumstances, and so John acts the part of both investigator and clean-up crew.
John Golden: Freelance Debugger is a really fun story. For starts, John has some really great humour that is often front and center in his conversations with the other characters. He is somewhat of a typical urban fantasy protagonist in that regard (the two default states being either broody and dour or upbeat and cheerful), and his character arc, as well as his development here, handled very well. Being a first person story, we really get to go into his brain and see all the things that make him tick.
And speaking of going into his brain, he carries around a Dell Inspiron laptop that houses his sister’s consciousness. A digital simulacra, Sarah no longer has a physical body. She exists only in the digital world. There’s quite a backstory here that Django doesn’t delve into much, but we get to see a lot of Sarah here nonetheless since she is a part of John’s work and is both his controller and his backup and his partner. There are a lot of footnotes in the story and these provide a running commentary on whatever the scene presented on the particular page is. The story is all first person from John’s perspective, but the footnotes are all first person from Sarah’s perspective.
I loved that duality, to be perfectly honest, and I feel that I learned a lot about either character from those footnotes, not to mention all the commentary we get on the world that Django has created, and that was a really neat touch. Points to Django for that.
We have another female character in this story: Delphi, the senior IT specialist of the company that John has been called in to help. There was some interesting chemistry between Delphi and John. Its not exactly romantic, but its not completely platonic either. Django teases that out in small quantities from their first scene together to the last, and he primarily keeps Delphi’s character arc confined to her own development as a character, rather than playing a typical second fiddle to John. And she and Sarah hit it off from the get go, which was another nice touch.
But of course, can’t ignore the setting itself, especially not where the faeries are concerned. Django mixes in faeries with technology in a really interesting way, as I’ve mentioned, and the striking thing is that while it all sounds somewhat ridiculous at first, there is a world here with a lot of hidden depths to explore, and that’s something that Django does really well. Every time this particular scenario, with the faeries invading a digital network and creating a home there, came up, I wanted to know more about them.
I guess you could say that the overall execution of the premise for the novella is one that ends up working out rather nicely. I was somewhat hesitant at first as to whether or not this would be a good story. But looking back, I really should not have worried, because Django does a great job here. Given all the title-dropping here, I’d love to read some sequels (yes, sequels) to this story, to see how the relationship between the characters continues to develop and what kind of different cases John takes up and the extent of Sarah’s powers and her personality and everything else.