Polar City Blues, by Katherine Kerr, 1991
The mystery in "Polar City Blues" is classical noir, with shady heroes and shadier officials, and settings so alive that you can feel the heat and the smoke of the big city -- even if it's a big city on some distant planet under burning polar lights, and not Los Angeles, even if there are star ships and the author enthusiastically bends race and gender expectations. Though not species expectations: The cat-people have an admirable sense of aesthetics.
It starts with a person from the alien embassy lying murdered in a holographic fountain. The clairvoyant called to investigate keels over with shock, and soon the bodies pile up, and to add to the fun, a strange sickness follows in the tracks of the murders, the outsiders living on the giant waste dump at the edge of the city talk about strange devils (but they are all insane anyway -- or are they?), a telepathic alien living under the protection of a gardening crime lady could tell more if he only had speech, and suddenly all the powers want a war and no one knows why, though the heroes might find out in time -- in time, that is, to get flattened by the powers.
The story is told first person present tense through different narrators, which makes is very immediate and fast-paced. As a mystery it's so/so, as a noir thriller it's quite typical, as Science Fiction it does not care for science, only for shiny and strange things where ever you look. The characters, narrators or none, are all alive, colourful and interesting (the assassin and the AI with the crush on it's owner were a little OTT, but with regard to the rest of the world only a little), I rarely wanted to whack anyone for cluelessness.
All in all, it was very enjoyable visiting the world in "Polar City Blues", meeting the characters and watching the story unfold. For all its imaginativeness it's not especially deep or clever, and both the story type (noir thriller) and the mode (1st person present tense) make the book a little unstructured. One month after reading it, I remember a lot of shiny stuff, but very few actual scenes.
When Demons Walk, by Patricia Briggs, 1998
Where "Polar City Blues" is a noir thriller, "When Demons Walk" is a whodunnit, also with some pretty world building, though not as highly imaginative.
The first thing an experienced reader and reviewer of fanfic notices, however, is that the heroine is an immense Mary-Sue. She's a thief. And not just any thief, but one of the best. She's also a mage. And not just any mage, but the last apprentice of the last king's mage. She was born nobility and has learned manners, and riding, and fashion sense, and all kind of useful stuff, but, well, life is hard, the kingdom got conquered, her parents died, and now she's living in a hovel in a slum with her old master who, due to the cruelty of the conquerors (who do not believe in magic, btw, yet persecute mages), is now crippled. She's best friends with the local crime lord and taught him many of his skills. She's in her mid-twenties and able to pass as a boy. Her hair hangs in thick soft waves halfway down her back. Her witty repartee awes everyone. And more along those lines. She also Has Flaws. She is not pretty! At least that's what the author tells us.
Once you get over that (and it's a lot to get over), and over the predictable love story (you have to get over it early, because you know how it will turn out some time around page 40), and some stylistic issues -- more clichés, some repetitions, a few POV shifts -- the book is actually not that bad. One big thing in it's favour is that the story flows quickly and smoothly. The "case" develops well. A little more immediacy here and there instead of exposition might have improved it, but OTOH the exposition helped keeping the speed up. The scenes that are there are alive and detailed, easy to see -- always an asset in a mystery. And now and then some thing just came out of the left field and wowed me: The description of the unusual "spirit tide", the magical runework, and the shape of the demon when the heroine finally corners it.
On the plot: Our thief-mage heroine gets hired by the Reeve of the conquered city, a powerful warrior with a heart of gold and a sense of justice, who suffers from some crippling lumbago, to find out who kills one of the courtiers every week. (So far, no one seems to have noticed.) As the heroine's teacher got killed by a demon recently the same way those courtiers got killed, and she has sworn vengeance, she's willing to pose as the Reeve's mistress and scandalise the court while she hunts the demon (and the demon, of course, hunts her). Add some strange characters, an attempt at court intrigue which falls kind of flat, and a big showdown, and you know the plot.
Still, the book wasn't as bad as it looks to the critical eye, and if I were less fed up on bad fanfic, I might even have considered it good. Or maybe my brain has turned to mush -- I have put in 55 hours of work the last week. That cannot be healthy.
ETA: Took out a mix-up of names and books.
Other news: I finally managed to get my bike home. I had left it at work after the unpleasant visit to the dentist in July, and then, for two weeks, I was physically incapable of riding it (everything that drove up my pulse or blood pressure was a very bad idea), and for the next two weeks, I hadn't the bloody time to walk to work. Anyway, yesterday I took the bus and rode my bike home. Small triumphs.