Thursday, February 16, 2012

Something from the Nightside

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Snappily short (230 pages)
Publication: May 27, 2003 from Ace Books
Premise: John Taylor, a washed-up private detective, is trying to get by in his dull London office when a woman walks in and promises him a small fortune for finding her runaway daughter. Unfortunately, there's a catch: the girl has vanished into the Nightside, London's dazzling dark mirror realm. John last saw the place five years ago when he was fleeing it, covered in blood and swearing never to return. But he can't turn down the money or the lady in distress, so they venture forth and find old friends, old enemies, and some people who are both. John wields a magical gift for finding things and still has a reputation in the Nightside, but his five-year coating of rust and that very reputation put him in more danger than he'd anticipated.
Warnings: Lots of blood and horror, but not to an excessive extent
Recommendation: Buy the first one for popcorn reading and go back for seconds on the rest of the series if you like it. 

Why this one is a straight-up treat:

The best comparison for this book is a potato chip, or maybe a handful of popcorn. That by no means makes it bad; on the contrary, hilarious description and tight action sequences leave nowhere for the story to even think about dragging. Simon R. Green creates enough lulls to let you get your bearings, but they invariably take place in a new and fascinating setting that can carry itself very nearly as a character in its own right. This book has a near-absolute command of pacing, neither piling up explosive events with insufficient context nor over-explaining things to the point of boredom. 

John Taylor's way of looking at the world works really well with the noir-comedy tone in brilliantly unpredictable ways. The book is charmingly aware of its own genre conventions and pokes at them lightly, sticking to its noir roots while adding in ridiculous supernatural creatures and events. The book announces its intention to be great with this recap of John's past in the second chapter: "I saw myself as a knight-errant...but the damsel in distress stabbed me in the back, my sword shattered on the dragon's hide, and my grail turned out to be the bottom of a whiskey bottle." John continues to play into the "tough guy who wants to help people" mold, but his casual friendship with scary people adds depth to that rough sketch. This is the right kind of genre-savvy for fantasy to be; self-aware, a touch self-deprecating, and willing to use that awareness for humor and plot advancement.

The worldbuilding is nothing short of stellar. It's a great deal like the London Below of Neverwhere boiled down to its bare essentials, stripped of half its seriousness, and mixed with burning vodka and glitter. I don't consider Green a knockoff, though; rather, there's something about London that seems to make fantasy writers want to give the city a hidden world. Green pulls it off by bringing up the spirit of the Sixties or chic fake Druid scythes in the same paragraph as bargains with mysterious gods. He's also not afraid to throw an overt bone or two to the reading audience: I laughed out loud at the "jukebox the size of a Tardis" and at John calling his finding gift "opening my private eye." That sort of thing, combined with the great crowd shots and stories, really makes it seem like Green knows that you're along for cool things happening and is willing to hand them over in spades. 

We still don't know exactly why John Taylor left, but there's a rich sense of the past that makes it believable that he used to be a fairly well-known player in the area. Running into his equally larger-than-life friends, from Razor Eddie the near-demigod to Shotgun Suzie the armed force of nature, reinforces that his powers let him keep up with the others but aren't enough to overturn the board. Old enemies are still angry, and old friends have missed him, but he and the Nightside seem to complete something in each other. Safety and logic kept him away for five years, but once he's back you can really feel how much he's missed the danger. The fact that this holds true even after he's outclassed and nearly dies drives it home nicely, though he never quite discusses it that way. He fits with his surroundings, and it makes both the world and his love for danger more compelling; he doesn't just tolerate the danger and madness, he relishes it.

There's a certain elegance to the story, a feeling that things have to be the way they are simply because they fit. In one place, it creates a perfect weakness for Razor Eddie, making me nod along with an utter surprise in under a page; mostly, though, it's small things about how John sees the Nightside that emphasize that he needs to be back there. The more John understands how the Nightside works and talks to the major players there, the more it seems like this place provides the passion and focus in his life. He knows quite a lot of what there is to know about the Nightside, and settling back into those patterns make him comfortably powerful in his own skin. 

There's more about the ending below, but the big reveal that precedes it is gorgeously out of the blue and we get one of those irresistibly grim moments from John: "I sighed, tiredly, getting ready to fight the good fight one more time, because that was all I had left." Shining triumphs are all well and good, but suffering and stubborn determination like this tend to pack a more human punch.

The red pen:  

Although the tightly plotted pacing and compact structure in some ways make the book, that very shortness highlights some of the story's weaknesses. There were more than a few elements that were rather obviously inspired by the Dresden Files. There's not enough overlap to call this a ripoff, but the battered private detectives with magical powers, sweeping long coats, dark pasts, mysterious mothers, dark senses of humor, and weaknesses for damsels in distress bear a more-than-passing resemblance to each other.

There's a great deal to be said for reading that's fun regardless of literary merit, which holds true here; it's fun to read, though unfortunately forgettable. Bits of the storyreally shine, but John Taylor himself and the general plot arc are a touch on the generic side. The short format means that there's very little room for character growth or foreshadowing that isn't conveyed at the point of a sledgehammer. This brevity leaves the story refreshingly free of pretentious mysteries, but the only questions left are very straightforward ones like "what happens next?" or "I wonder what that anvil-sized plot point is going to be in five books?" The characters snap off the page with great banter, but as soon as they're not being overtly funny or advancing the plot, they start to feel a bit like cardboard. 

We also see some recycled description, which doesn't really work in such a short novel. To a point, repeated imagery can be fun; take an example from the Dresden Files. The first time Harry sees Marcone in any individual book, we're going to hear about those eyes the color of old dollar bills. It's hilariously cheesy and overdone, but it works with all the money laundering that Marcone does and lends an air of old-fashioned noir to the scene. It grows on you. That said, that's once a book, and even then the charm sometimes wears thin or comes off as a lazy way to dodge writing new description. 

In a book so tightly paced that if it were clothing it would leave very little to the imagination, reading twice that the residents of Blaiston Street like it dark so they don't have to see how far they've fallen jolts the reader out of the story. It was a good hook the first time, but twice smacks of lazy editing and Green being too fond of his own turns of phrase. Similarly, having the same person ask Taylor if he knows anyone normal and being told that normal people don't last long in the Nightside twice in thirty pages is tiresome. We're being shown brilliantly that he only knows mad competent bastards, so telling the reader how crazy the Nightside is adds nothing to the story and comes off as trying too hard.

Further up I mentioned that you can feel John missing the Nightside, and that's true, but his monologues about how he can make a difference there and sudden mental declarations that he only feels really alive there play heavily into the trying too hard. It's a brilliantly dangerous place, he misses it, and he belongs there: we don't need a flowchart saying "by the way, me being exhilarated at all the strange people again means that I love and miss this place" all the time. Yes, he was gone for five years and he left in a hurry, but the over-justifying makes it start to seem like a flimsy excuse. He enjoys showing his client Joanna the Nightside and facing off against stupid people-- we see him spoiling for a fight and loving the danger, like he's stretching an unused muscle. This contrast makes the internal rambling actively annoying; Green doesn't need it, we don't need it, and it makes John into a less vivid character. 

The other real issue was a teeth-gritting tone problem: drama is wonderful, melodrama is not. Heated kisses on bloodsoaked cobblestones net you points for scene-setting, but hearing an monologue featuring "I'm just one man, using what gifts I have to help my clients, because everyone should have someone to turn to, in time of need" right before said kisses...eurch. There's also an actively painful scene with John and Joanna psychoanalyzing each other; you could have a decent drinking game of "spot the clich├ęs" running through it, it adds nothing that you can't already figure out if you know what subtext is, and just feels like a badly-designed obligatory emotional sequence. It's not that they're discussing problems that don't exist, it's that the whole conversation sounds like it was snatched from the set of a bad soap opera. In a novel this short, three or four pages of overemotional mess really stick out.

Sadly, the ending doesn't have the crashing touch of sheer high-octane danger that it could have accomplished. I won't spoil it, but suffice to say that we've already seen dead timelines and faceless nigh-invulnerable assassins and enough gorgeous insanity to fill any five books; the ending could have been significantly more exciting. It reads like Green plotted out a loose story arc, started writing, and had events in the middle grow beyond the plan without shifting the ending to take into account the increased intensity. While the ending isn't what you could call bad, it doesn't bite hard enough, and it plays into the melodrama problem. In the course of talking out his hackneyed life beliefs, John beats it into the reader's head that "you have to believe in dreams because sometimes, they believe in you," etc. This isn't unusual, but having something that Hallmark-esque outright stated in the middle of an otherwise good scene shatters the mood.

As a whole, this book is that one potato chip that tastes so good that you eat the rest of the bag, digestive problems and utter lack of nutritional value be damned. The problems are minor enough that they're mostly not distracting, and all the gorgeous worldbuilding and humor more than makes up for it. It's not rated lower for its sins because it would be a sin to pretend I didn't have trouble setting it down, but it's not rated higher because in short novels every problem is more obvious and and wastes proportionately more space.

Prospects: The series just wrapped up last month, finishing on volume twelve, The Bride Wore Black Leather. Green has written quite a few other series all over the genre, including some science fiction, and some of them are on my list of things to try soon.

Enjoyed this one? Try: 
 ~A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin. It lacks the tight pacing of the Nightside, but more than makes up for it with magic that seems to have grown in cities as naturally as trees grow in the forest. There's an undeniable elegance to the whole thing.
~The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Yes, I know they're everywhere; no, they won't come up for every urban fantasy review. They really are the meatier version of this, though, and share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses. 
~Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The dangerous people and beasts are great from both authors, and watching the protagonists grow into their love affairs with the shadow side of London just works in a way that I rarely feel for any of the near-infinite number of books set in New York. 
~The Man with the Golden Torc, also by Simon R. Green. The writing is a little stiff in places, but I'd say it's worth it for the massive plots and for all the flavors of magical Bond gadgets.

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