RPGs are one of my favorite forms, but they (almost) all follow the same trope: we, the heroes, dive into the world and are slowly introduced to its key elements. We are Neo, and we need a Morpheus to walk us slowly through the game mechanics. We are Frodo, lost if not for Strider's explanations It's a trope underscoring one of the great weaknesses of science fiction- as the world becomes more unrecognizable, the author's impulse is to explain. And Archeologists is, at times, unrecognizable from the modern world, a cyberpunk alternative to The Matrix, where humanity has become the machines.
The really great works of science fiction simply pull us headfirst into the world, knowing we'll pick it up as we go along. For all of the (just) criticism leveled against George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (sorry to have brought it up in successive posts), one thing it does well is trusting the reader to swim along in a cascade of information. This is why the story is so much more illuminating upon re-reading. Habibi, Ender's Game, Slaughterhouse Five; these books never really worry that the reader won't get it, they just plow on through.
Fuentes and Clarey strike a middle path. That the main characters of Archeologists of Shadows stumble through their world, finding just the right combination of wary but helpful strangers, nearly made me set the first volume aside. That their success appears to have been part of a more elaborate scheme by the hegemonic enemy sets up quite the Chekov's Gun. Either Fuentes and Clarey have a masterpiece or a dud; if there is a payoff waiting worthy of the immense cliffhangers provided by this first volume, this will be a series worth digging into.
Adding to mystery, quite a few characters make reference to "the gods" and "The Book of References." This speaks to a shared culture which the readers have only been given a second-hand glimpse. This is what I want, and at the same time, it fills me with dread. For that payoff to come, it has to come out of the culture that's been built at the beginning. For Archeologists to be a masterpiece, the payoff can't be like Harry Potter's horcruxes, a deus ex machina solution that appeared only at the end of the tale.
It's the art work of Archeologists that really steals the show. The mechanization of the world shows in the way every panel gleams- too much metal reflecting light. And even the frames have been bolted into place. The only downside is that, with fewer than 50 pages to get to know the heroes, I'm left feeling very little connection to the characters, and I often find them difficult to tell apart, especially in the shadowy profiles that abound. Of course, how well did we know Dream after one volume of Sandman?
The story is "To be continued..." and Fuentes and Clarey have set a high bar for their next installment.