Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nightlife


The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Pleasantly solid (339 pages)
Publication: March 7, 2006 from Roc Fantasy
Premise: Caliban Leandros is half-human, half-supernatural, and his father's demon race has been hunting him for his entire life. He and his older brother Niko have been on the run for years, moving to another city every time they run into one of the creatures that they've termed Grendels. This time, however, Cal wants to stay; he and Niko have started building a life with friends, and he's sick of running. Refusing to flee will put both of them in types of danger that they never anticipated, and they may finally learn what makes Cal so valuable...and why he was born.
Warnings: There's one scene of wandering in on a violently dismembered body and another vivid one of someone being stabbed and feeling it in great detail, but those are only a page or so each and the book as a whole isn't too graphic. There is, however, quite a lot of childhood emotional abuse (and implied slapping) of both brothers, particularly Cal, in the backstory.
Recommendation: Give this one a shot; some of the plotting is rough around the edges, but you really can't ask for a more engaging narrative voice than Cal's. Thurman delivers the humor and character relationships in spades. 

What gives this one a genuine emotional core: 

The relationship between Cal and Niko forms the centerpiece of the novel, and that bond reads as note-perfect. Many novels of this sort tend to position people with magical powers or supernatural ancestry as more powerful and competent than the ordinary humans, but the fully human Niko is by far more dangerous than Cal. He's spent years training himself in combat and doing occult research to try to figure out what Cal's father was and how they can fight the creatures hunting them. More significant, though, is the way he fills the role of older brother; he's been willing to give up his own college career and any chance of stability to keep Cal safe, first from their mother and then from the monsters. When Cal suggests staying and offers the chance of Niko having a better life as a reason, Niko flatly says that he will shove Cal in the car and start driving whether he likes it or not, because nothing is more important than keeping his brother alive and safe. 

Despite annoyances and obstacles, they're each other's whole lives, and when they say that they'll protect each other it rings true as being emotional but not saccharine. Niko's reserve cracks only when Cal is called a monster or threatened, and Cal can only be serious when Niko is in danger. His regard for anything else, whether alliances or his own chances of survival, fades to nothing. He's willing to do everything from launch a near-suicide run on a giant monster to start a food fight to shake Niko out of nightmare-giving memories, all without giving up a bit of his role as the annoying younger brother. At one point someone points out that Cal's heritage could mean that he'll live much longer than his brother, and he simply says that no, he won't. At first it seems like denial, but the implication that his life won't exist without Niko in it is spot-on; he doesn't linger on the idea or open it for discussion, only state his decision.  
In their less serious moments, the two banter like any normal siblings. Cal is nineteen but only has seventeen years that he can remember, and that two-year gap holds memories that he can't stand to recall even when someone tries to recover them under hypnosis. He's grateful to Niko, but he has no idea how to cope with whatever happened in the two years that he's missing, so he takes refuge in blatant immaturity. Sometimes it's exasperating, but it reads as realistic for a boy who's essentially seventeen and never had the chance at a normal childhood. He doesn't want to clean the apartment, he whines and makes fun of Niko's rather Roman nose, and he has the Dresden-esque inability to shut up and stop mocking the bad guys. His age makes it work as both immaturity and a coping mechanism, which adds yet more realism to his character. Hard-bitten magical professionals are everywhere, so it's great to see one who's young without wallowing in the angst of young adult territory. Some YA novels are great, but the way Cal stands with both feet in the adult world whether he wants to or not just works beautifully. 

Neither brother lingers on the unhappiness of their situation, and that makes it all the more poignant. Niko is intelligent enough to pursue a career in academia, skilled enough at martial arts to open his own dojo, and classically handsome enough to have his pick of women. He's also anal-retentive and paranoid, if justifiably so, and uses those tendencies to deflect Cal's questions about the kind of life that Niko could be living if he wasn't playing bodyguard. Niko refuses to compromise Cal's safety, and we see all sorts of touches that show the toll this life has taken. The brothers can count their friends on one hand and fit all of their belongings into a car that barely runs. After years of running, they don't have the savings to buy a better one or the will to make apartments their own with any personal touches beyond extra locks on the doors. The way these facts quietly slide into place demonstrates that they're living half a life, but there's not an ounce of self-pity to it. Cal and Niko are doing what's necessary, finding small windows for fun when they can.

This spark of humor and life flows all the better when the brothers run into Rob Fellows, who does just as much teasing as Cal does. Rob Fellows is short for Robin Goodfellow-- he's not the Puck, but his species was the root of the infamous character. Modern life and the swell of humanity have shoved supernatural creatures to the fringes, which means that this particular puck is working at a used car dealership when the brothers stumble across him in their quest to find a car that will get them out of town. At first glance he's a ridiculous clotheshorse, with a never-ending list of stories about his sexual exploits with historical figures dating as far back as Homer, but he's also lonely. Without anyone except hostile acquaintances to share his secrets, he sees the brothers as a chance at honest friendship and is willing to fight to keep them in town. Robin's shifts between complaining about stains on his silk shirts and pulling a sword out from under his greatcoat flow perfectly, and I'd be delighted to see spinoff stories about him, or at least read plenty of repeat appearances. He doesn't steal the scenes enough to dim the brothers, but he's an integral piece of support and absolutely likeable, balancing the weariness of immortality with (what else?) indefatigable puckishness.

The red pen: 

Most of the story arc works well, but one of the central mechanics is awkward. Midway through the book, Cal's consciousness is subsumed that of another creature, a Darkling. Cal and the Darkling aren't just sharing Cal's head head, they're merged into a single being, with the Darkling in the driver's seat and using Cal's memories to more effectively attack his brother and other allies. It's an intriguing concept, but there's almost no lead-in to it. We don't know exactly what's stalking him, and there's not even any indication that possession exists until suddenly Cal has silver eyes and a sociopathic spirit welded into his mind. That remains the case for about a third of the book, which unfortunately trades away Cal's brilliantly lazy narrative voice. Instead we get something that occasionally sounds like Cal, borrowing his nicknames and other turns of phrase, but instead twirls its evil mustache and makes incompetent plans for a hundred pages.

That problem gets worse when we get to the Auphe (essentially demon) plan in which the Darkling plays a central role, since one of the elements resolving it feels forced. One minor character who wandered onstage earlier turns out to be related to another minor character about whom I'm supposed to care for reasons unknown to God and man. The Darkling goes through the man's wallet, says that he looks familiar, finds a family photo, demands that the guy bring some unnecessary stuff to the ritual for drama or he'll kill the other character....and then the guy brings in backup to sabotage the ritual. Given that the two characters who are supposed to be related have very different physical descriptions and that Cal doesn't see the resemblance even when he's met both characters in one day, it feels like a flimsy plot device. 

Unfortunately, it's falling prey to the fantasy problem of trying to write a detective story without giving many real clues along the way and then whipping out the solution like it's sneaky writing instead of just out of the blue. Vaguely mentioning both characters' skin colors such that when you go back through and reread their descriptions they could theoretically be related isn't a clue. Revelations like that break the flow, as do some of the weirder plot holes surrounding how the climax comes together. The flow right up until Cal's possession is so good that it's  jarring to be muddling through the web of motivations late in the book. The climax of a book should be climactic, sharp and exciting, clear but with a few surprise twists, and this one mainly had me scratching my head.

The minor characters are something of a mixed bag. Early on in the book we encounter George/Georgina, a seventeen-year-old psychic who the brothers have grown to trust. The dynamic she has with Cal could be compelling, since in terms of lived experience they're the same age, but he's scared of the idea of sex, perhaps because the depth of those urges runs closer than he'd like to his demonic side. He brushes on that issue only lightly and spends most of his time teasing her like a younger sister to exaggerate the age gap between them. That works, but the way she helps by playing up the little dramas of her high-school life just seems....off, going beyond simple kindness to saintliness because her greatest concern is keeping him comfortable. At one point, the thing possessing Cal reflects that she's just too cute to live and the world needs to be rid of her; it's a darkly funny moment for that entity, but I kind of agreed with him. 

A sweet young psychic dedicated to serving the higher good even when it hurts gets particularly old when she displays no character flaws and has descriptions like "George was truth and faith. George was hope and warmth. George was belief when you have none." Real people have warts and bad days and do things that are over the line or even just annoying, but George is up on a sky-high pedestal. You can have psychic or spiritually elevated figures who still feel real: take a look at River Tam on Firefly, Michael Carpenter in the Dresden Files, or Jean Valjean of Les Miserables if you want to take a turn for the classical. Even giving George some level of emotional scarring to show that she's seen painful things would have worked better; Cal says that she has a hard road ahead, but the brothers saw her using her powers two years ago, so there's already been enough time to scrape some of the sunshine off. Early in the book I'd have said that Cal would do well in a relationship with someone to balance his angst, but at the end it looks more like he would need someone more real. 

The other female character who we see most often is Meredith, Cal's coworker at the bar. Her character's defining trait appears to be really great breasts. She's shallower than a puddle, loves looking at her own chest, and apparently likes to hit on Niko when he's around and on anything male when he's not. Yes, Cal points out that none of this makes her a bad person, but she feels like a caricature. Combine her with Promise, the money-hunting vampire with serial marriages who graces the book for maybe ten pages total (but could have been interesting given time), and the only female character left is Sophia, Niko and Cal's mother. Reading the flashbacks of her abusive behavior can be uncomfortable, but she also had the potential to be truly interesting. She had gypsy ancestry and told fortunes to pay for her drinking habit, but there's an aura of faded glory about her when Cal mentions her beauty or her wistful regard for her people's tradition. 

Despite these hints at a fuller character, she also told Cal that he was conceived in a prostitution exchange when he was ten and named him Caliban to highlight his ancestry, so it's hard to stay sympathetic for long. I can see her getting more interesting with flashbacks in future books, but right now she's falling a little too solidly into the fallen woman camp alongside Meredith to balance George the magical virgin. On some level, I'm darkly amused because Robyn Thurman is a woman and this polarizing of the female characters is normally a besetting sin in books by male authors, but it looks like it's an equal-opportunity problem this time around. Don't get me wrong: I'm not one for tokenism, and the three major characters all work perfectly as they are, man-tackle and all, but if you're going to have women in the book at all then at least bother to use some of that brilliant characterization  on them. Cal putting Georgina on a pedestal and Meredith at the focal point of his staring could work well if there was much to them underneath those aspects, but there's not.

All in all, many of the things that are wrong with this book are things that were also unique to this volume. I don't think it's very likely that Cal will vanish for that long once per book, one of the bothersome minor characters is dead, and with any luck Cal will have eased off on insisting that he's a monster. I'll be giving the rest of the series a try sometime.


Prospects: The seventh book in this series, Doubletake, came out in March. Thurman is, to the best of my knowledge, continuing to write in both this series and the two others that she has started. 

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Nothing yet, though several friends have assured me that The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan has similar flavor and quality. Odds are I'll be reviewing that within a few months, so keep an eye out. 

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