Pisces of Fate, by New Zealand author Paul Mannering and published by Marie Hodgkinson’s Paper Road Press, is the second in the series begun with Engines of Empathy, which I reviewed some time ago. Engines is a sublimely off-centre quest novel detailing the efforts of Charlotte Pudding, computer psychologist, towards acquiring a magical substance—patchouli oil—with which to activate a mysterious artefact—a living-oak desk. Pisces pays lip service to Charlotte, and includes cameos from her charmingly irritating offsider Vole Drakeforth, but it revolves around Charlotte’s younger brother Ascott, who, on learning of his parents’ death in an accident, fled from his studies to the tropical Aardvark Archipelago where he has been devoting his time to a thorough but probably totally unnecessary study of the archipelago’s often-bizarre marine life. Ascott’s idyllic island-based existence, shared with his opinionated, vocal parrot Tacus and the laconically practical Shoal Smith, becomes threatened when a group of treasure-seekers, led by the suave and ruthless Kalim Aari, identify him as a principal obstacle in their search for the ill-gotten gains of the long-dead Captain Aargh.
Pisces shares with its predecessor an enviable line in whimsicality and comic timing, with some wonderfully deft turns of phrase. It’s a thoroughly readable story, and builds well to an appropriate conclusion. I’m not sure that it quite matches Engines in inventiveness or curliness—there’s a more straightforward storyline this time around, and with much of the worldbuilding already established in the first book, it feels as though there’s less room to move in this one—and to my mind Ascott and Shoal are a less didatically charming pairing than were Charlotte and Vole. In this sense, the book is to some degree captive to ‘The Two Towers syndrome’, where there’s less of a resolution than of a setting-up for the eventual denouement in the final volume. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot to like about Pisces, with some very amusing set-pieces and a lot of fun with the renaming of familiar objects.
It’s presumably a triumph of gravitas over accuracy that has led Mannering to dub this series not ‘the Pudding trilogy’ but rather ‘the Drakeforth trilogy’. Whatever it’s called, I’ll be looking forward to the final volume, to see how the pieces fit together.