Post-apocalyptic fantasy/science fiction fusions are becoming more common, which I am happy about. Despite being a mashup of three different genres, the trio seems to work well together and I have been reading some excellent work in the space in the last few years. There is something really satisfying about watching a protagonist rule over a wasteland with scientific powers so advanced they might as well be magic. The latest entry I have read in this niche is The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless. It is a great debut from an author I knew nothing about before I read the book on a whim. Additionally, I don’t normally care about the personal lives of authors when I judge their books, but Eyal Kless is a pretty cool exception. Turns out he is both a professional violinist and a professor at the Buchmann Mehta school of music in Tel Aviv. Clearly, he is a pretty talented guy, and if you are the type who prioritizes books from international authors this might be right up your alley.
So, The Lost Puzzler. For starters, the book is another in the current trend of using a historian exploring the past as a narrative technique. The book is split into two POV’s, the first of which is a scribe of the Guild of Historians. The scribe has been tasked with a dangerous mission to discover the fate of Rafik, a boy who has been missing for a decade and is said to be a ‘puzzler’ (get it, he’s a puzzler who is lost, titles). Puzzlers are people with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like caches of technology that are scattered across the world. These boxes are hidden away in dangerous mazes and dungeons and contain treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. The Tarkanian civilization was an empire with extremely powerful technology that more or less imploded, taking most of the known world with it, in an event called ‘The Catastrophe’. While I like a lot of things about The Lost Puzzler, I will say the names in the book are a bit uninspired. Following The Catastrophe, humanity fragmented into a number of guilds and groups that banded together to survive. Diving into dungeons for lost technology became one of the major forms of progress in the new world, which made puzzlers extremely important as they are the only ones who can unlock the nodes.
As I mentioned the book has two POV’s in two different timelines. The first is the scribe’s journey in the present as he tries to find Rafik, and the second tells the story of Rafik from childhood up until he disappears. One of the things that I like about the book is that the story is fairly evenly split between the two timelines and does a good job having them compliment each other. Rafiks story focuses a lot on the difficulties of growing up as a puzzler. He was born in a community that has reverted after the Catastrophe, becoming deeply faithful to the new gods they worship while shunning everything to do with technology. This makes life hard for Rafik when strange tattoos marking him as a puzzler began appearing on his fingertips. He is exiled from his family and starts a journey out into the wider world, with painful naivety.
Rafik works as an excellent vessel for worldbuilding, as his backwater origins make it feel natural for characters to constantly be explaining how the world around them works – and the world is very interesting to dive into. Kless did a great job of building intrigue and my curiosity as I saw more and more of what was left of the planet (presumably Earth). However, while the worldbuilding and events were great to read – they did sometimes feel a little choppy. I occasionally would sink into a really cool segment – like Rafik’s time with a super truck (a MASSIVE semi-truck that is a lot cooler than it sounds) captain – only to be a little disappointed when the narrative moved on too quickly. The narrative jumps only slow down in the second part of the book when Rafik is employed by a looters guild that is obsessed with exploring a lost city of the Tarkanian empire. And although this is the most stable of the parts of the narrative, it also isn’t as fun or as interesting as the first parts of the book.
The characters were great though. I think I ended up liking our scribe narrator more than Rafik, as I found the scribe’s character arc of self-actualization very satisfying to read. However, there weren’t any bad characters, including the antagonists and supporting cast. Kless did a great job making people feel like lawless rabble that had to carve out space to live in a shitty world, but still made them likable in their own way. There is a good mix of selfish assholes and people who have moments of kindness to make the world feel terrible but not hopeless.
In general, I really liked The Lost Puzzler. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubix cube, and I liked that a lot. The book ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, and I was sufficiently drawn in to definitely want to pick up the sequel. I just hope that Eyal Kless smooths out the writing a little bit and improves his pacing ever so slightly. Otherwise, I think The Lost Puzzler is a fantastic debut and you should check it out.
Rating: The Lost Puzzler – 8.0/10