A slow start to the new year, with only three books completed. But I did have some other things going on in January. I polished off my first book of February Sunday night, so I’ll include it in this list.

The Whites – Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Richard Price is one of the best crime writers around. In addition to his own novels, he was a contributing writer on The Wire. He felt he needed to get away from the weight of his previous work, so chose to write this book under a pen-name. Which I found a little strange, because this novel deals with cops and crime and the blurry lines between good and bad in that realm. So kind of what he’s always been writing about.

In that transition, he lost none of his quality. This is another fine, gritty crime novel.

The Polish Officer – Alan Furst
Book three in the Night Soldiers series. As with the first two, Furst moves time just a little bit forward and to another part of Eastern Europe. This time things begin in Poland, just after the German invasion in 1939, as the surviving elements of the Polish armed forces make plans to escape and fight for Poland from different soil. Our hero is Alexander de Milja, who flees to Paris and, after it is occupied, builds an intelligence service that helps to harass the Nazis and prevent an early invasion of Britain.

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi
I found this on a Best Of list somewhere, the AV Club perhaps, listed as one of the scariest books the reviewer had read last year. It was supposed to be scary because of the truth within its plot. It wasn’t about a super-flu that wiped out half the world like in The Stand or Station Eleven, or a science experiment run amok like in Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy. Rather this was about our water supply disappearing and the resulting havoc that would cause. Which seemed like an interesting concept.

Too bad the book didn’t deliver. It takes place sometime in the fairly near future in Nevada and Arizona. The water supply in the western US has diminished dramatically. States, and the paramilitary organizations that work on their behalf, are fighting over who actually owns the original rights to the waters that flow across state borders. Las Vegas, thanks to a ruthless CEO of its water authority, flourishes while Phoenix has turned into something out of the Mad Max films.

The Water Knife is the CEO’s main fixer, a guy who secures water rights when they must be secured and who eliminates threats to Nevada’s water supply without remorse. So the book is about him, right?

Well kind of. We’re introduced to him early. But not told that he is in fact the Water Knife until deep into the book. Was the Water Knife a person? A law? A military operation? A new invention that solved the water crisis? We’re introduced to other characters who are made to seem sympathetic. For the first 200 pages or so I wondered which character was the lead and who I should be paying the most attention to. This problem is muddled further in a chaotic, climatic scene. There are double-crosses and surprises, but I’m never sure who I’m rooting for.

Another big flaw is we’re never really told what the cause of the water shortage was. Simple overuse over time? Global climate change that wiped out precipitation in the southwest? Water being blocked elsewhere? There are hints to all of these, but never full answers. Which is kind of maddening. And we’re never told if this is just a southwestern US thing or if the entire world is facing the same disaster.

The Water Knife is built on a fascinating concept, but failed to deliver.

The Magician King – Lev Grossman
Finally, I jumped into book two of Grossman’s Magician trilogy. Which, you may know, is now a series on the SyFy channel. It picks up shortly after the first book left off: our heroes have become kings and queens of Fillory, a magical kingdom in a different plane of reality from our Earth. They set upon a quest, which goes awry a few times, and eventually pours into a larger quest to save not only their world, but perhaps all worlds. Along the way, we get the origin story for our oddest hero, Julia, who came to the group by a different path of magical education.

While Grossman kept his same light tone – his books have been called fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy – this one is a bit more of a slog than book one. I found the first half-to-two thirds rough going. There was momentum in the story, but the pace seemed awfully slow and, at times, not super compelling.

But in the last 150 pages or, it all comes together very, very nicely. Like so many book twos of trilogies, it is as much about setting up the big finish in book three as providing a satisfying ending. Some loose ends are wrapped up, but in terms of setting up the final book, it is perfect.