The title character of Eyal Kless’ debut novel The Lost Puzzler is lost, but he’s not alone.
In many ways, he inhabits an entire world that is itself is lost, and struggling to be found.
The people are lost, living among ancient technology they don’t fully understand or trust. The various guilds that vie for power are lost in their quest for dominance. And the secrets from a long-ago civilization that might be able to save are is lost, locked behind doors that few can open.
It’s a world where humans have voluntarily become cyborgs for violent purposes, where civilization lacks an organizing authority, where communities protect each other from outsiders but are quick to turn on their own if they feel threatened by what they don’t understand.
It’s a world full of desperate people hoping for a better life.
In short, it’s a dystopia, one whose full scope only becomes clear at the end.
The most intriguing element of this lost world is a strain of mutations that manifest, for some, in adolescence: a sort of DNA-rewrite that causes the formation of tattoo-like patterns that imbue their bearers with special abilities. One of them is the knowledge necessary to solve the complex mathematical ciphers and cyber-intelligence codes (i.e. the titular puzzles) left to guard the technology of that long-ago civilization—the key to wealth for those who can recover it, and perhaps, eventually, the key to salvation for the whole world.
But the stakes are revealed only, as Keyes’ worldbuilding explores every aspect of the current status quo, from the good, to the fascinating, to the truly awful. The initial narrator is a young historian who carries a mutation of the eyes that enhance his sight. He is tasked with discovering the fate of the most gifted puzzler of all, Rafik, who disappeared on a mission to enter the ruins of the lost Tarakan civilization. Young Rafik vanished but one of the friends on his last mission, a woman named Vincha, is alive. Searching for Vincha, the historian confesses, if only to himself, that he doesn’t seem qualified for a quest with of such importance.
Many times during my search for Vincha, I had wondered about my LoreMaster’s reasons for choosing me, of all people. One would logically want to send a military expert … someone who, unlike myself, did not instinctively recoil from violence. Was my nomination an act of desperation? Lack of another suitable candidate? Punishment for my idling ways? Or did he already see something I never knew I had in me–lust for adventures and a knack for quick, creative thinking when my life was in danger? At the time, I did not know the answers but I certainly learned much in the course of my two-year-long wanderings, most of which I would pay hard metal to be able to forget.
The story begins with our narrator searching for Vincha in a place called The Pit—an apt name, roiling with the dregs of the world, and then is taken over periodically by Rafik’s life story; as a boy, he grew up in a religious village viewed those afflicted with the strange tattoos as abominations. Rafik’s world is shattered when the marks first appear on his fingers. (His father has a brutal solution to the problem, involving a very sharp blade; Rafik submits to the ax but it’s to no avail, as his hand grows back, with the tattoos bigger this time.)
Rafik is sent away to live in a large city, where he might be able to survive in anonymity, and unwittingly embarks on a long and convoluted journey, used as a pawn and worse by those who believe he might be able to open generations-locked doors to unbelievable wealth. Rafik’s own feelings about these events remain unclear; he’s entranced by the magic and complexity of the patterns in the puzzles he is tasked with solving.
The narrator becomes fascinated by the question of why and how Rafik disappeared, and the reader will as well, as the quest for answers circles back to where it all began: a lost city guarded by a seemingly endless supply of mutated beings, and innumerable locked doors that dream of being opened.
The reckless pursuit of answers, in one form or another, drives the story; it takes on the feel of a heedless suicide run, yet I cared deeply about its outcome. The characters are compelling, particularly the narrator and Rafik: multi-faceted, not quite evil, not quite good, seemingly trapped by circumstances. A merchant who uses Rafik as simply a pawn in a scheme to make money deeply loves his wife; the “driver” of one of the advanced Tarakan trucks that can navigate their highway is half in love with the artificial intelligence that steers it; an aged cyborg warrior has less physical power but more smarts than those trying to kill him. And there’s Vincha, who could have easily been the protagonist, who speaks in half-truths and her own sort of riddles, who seems at first to be only selfish, but may be the most selfless of them all.
Kless, a professional musician, has crafted a debut novel in which all of the elements come together in something approaching perfect harmony, with bass notes of the post-apocalyptic and a multi-part melody of character-based intrigue. The world of The Lost Puzzler is a hard one, but not without hope, and by the end, readers receive most of the answers they (and the characters) are seeking, though they may not be expected ones. More stories are promised in this world, and I am eager to see what doors they take us through next.