Bookburners: lead us not into temptation

Bookburners: Season Two (stylised character art)

Six months after the Hand’s infiltration, change is rippling through the Vatican’s most secret Society. Politics swirl in advance of the appointment of a new Cardinal. Trust must be re-established between teams so recently at each other’s throats. The Black Archives have received funding for research – although not everyone shares Asanti’s conviction that the best way to fight magic is to study it. But beyond Rome, the tide of magic is rising…

My new favourite Serial Box continues with an excellent second season that plays to its strengths. Now that the characters, the mission and the risks are established, the writing team have the space to broaden their focus. Where Season One was very much about new girl Sal getting to know Team Three and getting first-hand experience of what they are up against, Season Two foregrounds Asanti and Liam as they grapple with their past and present.

Bookburners is holding fast to its tried and tested serial format: three-quarters of the season plays out as globe-trotting missions of the week, although – as with Season One – each episode contributes to the season arc and leads to another devastating finale. First time around, Team Three were playing for Sal’s soul and to save the world from becoming a demonic realm; this time around, the stakes feel even more personal as the battle for reality threatens to tear the team apart.

The surprises start in the first episode, with Asanti joining the others on a mission and challenging Liam that maybe – just maybe – it should be a priority to save people, not just to close their books. Even more surprising, Liam – ever quick to judge others – concedes that she may have a point. In spite of this early success, this season builds tension fast between Asanti and the rest of the team.

While Sal is sunnily open-minded in spite of her recent experiences (driven at least in part by her desire to see the team stay a team rather than fragmenting over philosophy), Menchú is firmly against any dabbling in the dark arts (hardly surprising). Liam’s attitudes are as changeable as the wind; and Grace will always have Menchú’s back. It’s just as well – from Asanti’s point of view – that her new budget extends to hiring a large team of allies researchers, spearheaded by Frances – smart, ambitious and dangerously keen. Assigned to work out what’s gone wrong with the Orb – which has inconveniently stopped working just when it’s needed the most – the young academic is soon a vital member of Team Three. But Frances is naive about magic, with a tendency to be distracted by the possibilities over recognising the risks, and here thoughtless commentary often raises Grace and Liam’s hackles.

I liked Frances from the get-go. I also cackled through her intermittent flirtation with Liam (and Sal’s conflicted reaction to it). The Irishman is increasingly positioned as Bookburners eye candy; the series is unashamedly biased to the female gaze. But this season is not here to build romantic relationships and the emphasis on Liam’s impressive physique never overshadows his technical and brawling expertise. We’re regularly reminded why Liam is so cut: his attitudes to possession may be softening, but he still lives in fear of losing himself again.

And that risk is real. I commented that the cyber-bio-punk cultists were one of my favourite antagonists of Season One: they’re back with a vengeance in Season Two. Somehow I’d missed the obvious connection, but how did I think hacker Liam ended up possessed by a networking demon? Mid-season, a mission to Shanghai to retrieve an artefact that can help fix the Orb allows Grace room to find out what happened to her old team (oh, Grace) and brings Liam face-to-face with his old allies in the Network. He may not remember them, but once they’ve found him they’re not keen to let him go; they’ve spent years trying to work around the gap he left at the heart of their plans, but getting him back would still be a shortcut to, uh, making the world a more connected place.

When we see what they have in mind, I loved the way the writers balance what is objectively horrific with what appears – subjectively – not to be entirely terrible. The disaster at Middle Coom is unnerving, but the only person who has a bad time with it is – ironically – a member of the Network who just isn’t ready to be subsumed into the cosy group consciousness of a small Irish village. The stage is set for the reader to feel at least a little uncomfortable with the Society’s containment options…

Feeling uncomfortable with the Society is a recurring theme. The supposed rogue elements in Team Two have been dealt with, but team lead Hilary Sansone is a delightfully slippery character it’s almost impossible to trust. Needless to say I love her: political, manipulative, and impossible to read – at no point was I entirely clear where she really stood or what she wanted from Arturo (who is terrible at politics, but very capable at holding grudges and wringing concessions out of Team Two’s past misdeeds). As a woman, the prize in the game – to be named the Society’s new Cardinal – is forever beyond her reach; but she’s clearly playing the game of thrones for maximum influence behind the scenes.

Playing a very different game is Asanti, who we get to know a lot better this season. I loved that the team archivist is an elegant African grandma; she only becomes more awesome on closer acquaintance (hello yes to polyamorous bisexual African grandma, with two episodes pivoting around her former lovers). Where she had no qualms about rejecting Mr North, Season Two is all about the temptations of magical research, and my fear for her grew as the season progressed. Angiuli may have given Asanti funding to restore the Black Archives, but her interpretation of her remit is significantly broader than the Vatican can support. The question that haunted me through the season was whether she would be forced out or whether she would push her research too far and prove the naysayers right.

I thoroughly enjoyed the interwoven storylines and their blend of personal and apocalyptic tension. My beloved found family comes under all the pressure, with Sal a fragile bridge trying to hold everyone together in the face of fundamental disagreements. Grace’s situation also bubbles up to a roiling simmer, as she realises that conducting magical research could include researching a way to free her – and that such research can never be a top priority. It’s fair to say most of the team has more baggage than they can possibly carry; and their loads only get heavier.

With this much drama on the go, hats off to the writing team for once again crafting a coherent, compelling narrative that balances anguish with humour, research and politics with action, and just keeps building complexity into its characters and their relationships. This is a brilliant second outing, and I remain utterly hooked. And I haven’t even mentioned Team Four…

Favourite episodes: 1/Creepy Town, 2/Webs, 7/Fire and Ice and 11/Shock and Awe – although I giggled the whole way through episode 3, which I highly recommend to anyone who has ever worked in event management.

Bookburners is a collaborative work by Max Gladstone, Andrea Phillps, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Amal El-Mohtar and Brian Francis Slattery. It is available as serialised fiction or audio from Serial Box (seasons for sale individually, or all included in the new Serial Box membership). Season Two is also available as a book/ebook from Saga Press.