Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Taken: release day!

I managed to pick up this as an ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy) when I stopped by the bookstore where I used to work; I'll be trying to find more where I can so that I can put up reviews on the day that each one comes out. If you or your publishing house would like to send me one, drop me a line and I'd be happy to take a look.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: On the long side of moderate (432 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: June 12, 2012 (today) from Harper Voyager
Premise: Griffin Shaw was a P.I. when he died fifty years ago, and he's spent the years since unable to let go of his memories as he escorts departed souls into the Everlast. One night he lets a recently murdered woman back into her body for a moment, and she has just enough time to write her friend a note when Shaw isn't looking. That small action dooms the rockabilly reporter Kit Craig to die and gets Shaw banished into mortal flesh until the time when he watches Kit's death and experiences it as his own. But this P.I. lost a bold woman to violence in Las Vegas before, and he won't stand by and let it happen again.
Warnings: Attempted rape, attempted gang rape, coerced prostitution, and offscreen sexual abuse of children; this one seems to be trying to go for Shock Value Bingo in places.
Recommendation: If you have a strong attachment to the trappings of the 1950s or to the idea of angels on earth, you could do worse than this one, but otherwise it's too predictable in some areas and not quite intense enough in others to make up for that. 

What gives this one an interestingly nostalgic flavor: 

The premise of this one really shines, though it could easily seem recycled and flat in the hands of another author. Griffin Shaw has spent the years since his violent death as a Centurion, one of the lowest tiers of angels charged with escorting panicked souls from their bodies after violent death. He's gotten fairly callous about it, especially since he and his wife Evie were both shot and killed and he still can't find her soul. One murdered woman refuses to go with him, so he lets her back into her body for a moment; when he isn't looking, she adds something to her investigation notes that inadvertently guarantees her best friend's death. Since Griffin is to blame, he is shoved back into the pain and disorientation of human flesh to watch that friend, Catherine "Kit" Craig, die and bring her across to the other side. The moments of being forced into a human body are uncomfortably vivid, conveying the awful feeling of having blood and skin again after years of being no more solid than air. Griffin's emotions also pour back in a rush; he's spent years since his death being bitter and uncertain about the murder of his wife, Evie, but the rush of feeling things in a real body threatens to overwhelm him.

The rules for angels make sense; Pettersson sensibly goes with the celestial hierarchy for titles and concerns herself more with the distinction between Pure angels born and created in the Everlast and Centurions, who were once human. Pures do not possess free will, since they were created as servants to God. Humans, who were created in God's image, can defy their superiors and act against orders; more powerful angels can harm or threaten them, but Centurions are free to help each other's Takes (violently killed souls who need to be carried onward) or even spend time doing something else if they're willing to deal with the consequences. 

Griffin's most useful angelic power, after mundane things like opening locks and calming animals, is sensing the approach of death. He starts to see it as static around a person and can associate the patterns with cause of death, which lets him do everything from warning a passing waitress about a cancerous mole to knowing that Kit is safe for a little while once the static has dissipated. Since Griffin still retains his investigation and boxing skills, he doesn't need a ridiculous parcel of powers to get through the book....though his weird and pointless infusion of power from a Pure near the end felt like a plot point rammed in sideways.

Pettersson also has an interesting take on hell; namely, that the conventional fiery pit doesn't exist. Instead, those who are barred from Paradise are trapped eternally in a forest full of demons who endlessly re-enact the suffering that they performed on others in life. Griffin's monologue about the Third, the fallen angels who perform that torment, is one of his most genuinely intimidating moments, and the fact that we never meet any of the Third helps keeps this book anchored in urban fantasy with light grace notes of the angelic powers. We see more of those powers when a Pure is also trapped in mortal flesh to keep an eye on Griffin until he brings Kit back, and that angel doesn't have any experience with human sensations to ground her. She can't have all of her senses operating at once, and even the sensory feedback she takes in is eroding her mind. She wants to feel more and more things, but they tear at her sanity, and she's slowly spinning out of control as she even demands that Griffin kill Kit so that she can flee the agony of feeling human. Some of her later passages become bizarre and overblown, but those in the middle of the book are quite chilling.

Griffin's continuing obsession with Evie easily could have gotten boring if she'd been either a tragically dead plaster saint who only wanted to start a family with him or a secretly-evil scarlet woman, the better to contrast with Kit's romantic dreams. Pettersson falls into neither trap, portraying Evie as a woman who truly loved Griffin and supported him through rough financial times....but who also liked flirting with lots of men and gambling when the opportunity presented itself. She liked to live large, perhaps all the more so after saving money for so long, and the glamorous excitement of her last night on earth feels real. Griffin misses her as a beloved wife, a woman he feels that he failed to protect when she was shot in front of him, and the violence of it without a chance to say goodbye keeps him focused on solving her murder, though not to the exclusion of enjoying life in the flesh again.

Pettersson's fascination with the rockabilly lifestyle really shows; she nails little details about brand names, types of shoes, decor....the aesthetic is very clearly drawn, and the philosophy of only seeking out things that you deeply desire makes it go deeper than many explorations of subculture. These people love finding just the right pomade or mixing drinks in an older style, creating the echo of an era in the way that they carry themselves. Characters in this genre who spend their time on SCA-era pursuits tend to have their antiquated skills pay off when the magic part of the book starts, but the rockabilly people are following this purely for the joy of it, with no ham-fisted attempt to make dancing the Lindy Hop a way to triumph. The investigation feels genuine, complete with dead ends and recalcitrant sources, with visits with gangsters from Griffin's old life to add living nostalgia to the mix. Pettersson has done her homework about Vegas as it used to be, and that makes Griffin's wistfulness about the city's older personality shine.

The red pen: 

The clash between Griffin's very real connection to the 1950s and Kit's love of the rockabilly lifestyle should have sparked more than it did. The way Kit drops phrases like "fat cat heads will roll" into conversations feels forced, verging on an embarrassing way of playing dress-up, and to someone who lived and died in those years her attraction to the hair and dresses and mannerisms could seem disrespectful or simplistic. Griffin does call her out as a Lois Lane fake at one point during a fight, but that issue quickly becomes wrapped up in others. Part of Kit and Griffin's attraction to each other is based on their shared love of the mystery and sensuality that can be present in 1950s-style life, but Griffin vividly remembers beating up rapists and dying in that era, while Kit has covered her kitchen in vintage pink appliances. That difference could create an intriguing gap between them, but it just falls flat. Griffin doesn't even really point out parts of the fifties that the rockabillies might be forgetting, and even his fifties slang (thankfully, since it was awful) mostly vanishes after the first few pages.

Kit's rockabilly look was beautifully vivid, especially when she paused the investigation to get her hair redone, but I was going to shoot something if her hips were mentioned one more time. Let me be clear: heroines who come in a size besides "slender but with a great rack" should really show up more often in this genre. The hip emphasis annoys me in the same way that characters who won't stop flipping their blond locks, or casting cold glares with their steel-grey eyes, annoy me; picking one physical trait to accentuate gets old, and this did, especially since I promise you that women's skeletons have not all magically shrunk to have smaller hips since the 1950s. This book stuck to the unadventurous ground of the male lead liking women with curves and people tossing out a few disparaging remarks about women who look like sticks, but it could have been so much more. Kit's ex-husband is already unpleasant, and the rockabilly lifestyle is met with sneers from quite a few people, so having people actually react in a way that indicates that they don't like her weight would have made this feel like a real problem instead of some sort of insecurity that doesn't matter because the skinny ladies aren't sexy anyway, so there. Body image issues can be interesting, but this seemed like an attempt to create a voluptuous/anorexic pairing to go with the existing (and unsubtle) love/sex and authenticity/money themes going on, and it didn't work at all.

The same problem of style over substance unfortunately applied to Kit's reaction to her friend's death. Her thoughts as she wandered through the streets felt like a collage of every stock phrase reaction to grief, complete with wanting to shake laughing passersby to ask how they could possibly be happy. Kit's grief later seemed to almost vanish amid distractions; the woman was her best friend and constant sidekick, and relationship angst really shouldn't cancel that out. Two of the minor characters had the same problem of more or less being petty and awful just for the sake of it. Kit's ex-husband can't be bothered to comfort her for even an hour after her best friend dies but gets jealous to see her around Griffin, and Layla Love the rockabilly vixen was just an unfortunate game of Stereotype Bingo. Pretty? Check. Platinum blond? Check. Wearing leopard print? Check. Trying to hit on Griffin at her friend's wake? Check. Burlesque dancer? Check. Originally married to an old man who died and left her rich? Very check. Not every character has the time to be nuanced, but this is an uninspired collection of awful piled onto one person.

And style over substance....the sex isn't sexy. It's not IKEA Erotica (Tab A went into Slot B and it was so sexy), thank goodness, but it seems to fall into the pattern of "the leads have sex and it is so effortlessly good the first time around that they gain FIFTY LOVE POINTS." With snort-worthy lines like "her cry would outshine the angelic choir," it comes off as Hallmark Does Porn, running on a jumble of confused metaphors about earthquakes and animals and cresting in the air and shooting arrows. Good sex scenes conducted mostly in high metaphor exist, but they tend to pick one comparison like the wind against a willow and stay with it, panning from imagery to reaction shots to touching and back again. Just because you can compare something about sex to something out in the world doesn't mean that you should, especially if "something" is "five differing things on one page."

There were minor issues too, most obviously the fact that mentioning Snooki and Hoarders guarantees that this book will feel really dated in five or ten years. No rule says you have to write for posterity, but pseudo-reality shows and fake celebrities in the center of the banter do limit the shelf life a lot. We also don't know where Griffin keeps getting money when his wallet only has whatever he had in the 1950s before inflation, or why no one recognizes that his money looks different, given the color-shift in US currency over the last few years. Individually these issues doesn't really seem noticeable, but over the course of the book the inconsistencies stack up. There's also an annoying scene of Griffin having a Dramatic Revelation about what the bad guy is up to, but we'd been over exactly what was happening about forty pages ago and my main reaction was "yes, the dude is like a mountain of evil potatoes topped with evil gravy and a puppy dies every day that he continues to walk the earth. Stop with the filler already." The actions are more than reprehensible enough without trying to get the same horrified realization from the same character twice, and the attempt feels lazy.

All in all, this book as a whole mirrors Kit's attraction to the rockabilly lifestyle; it's stylish and pretty and a lot of fun in places, but there's ultimately not much substance to it. I'm not writing the author off, but I'm also not bothering with the future releases in the series unless I can find free or extremely cheap copies. The rockabilly lifestyle hasn't shown up in my urban fantasy reading before, and I'd love to see someone tackle it from a more humorous angle; having a hardcore rockabilly enthusiast stumble into magical powers and then use the lifestyle to hide or enhance them could be great in the right hands.

Prospects: This is listed as the first book of Celestial Blues, so I'd put money on at least two more of these being under contract. Pettersson also has a series called Signs of the Zodiac. The sixth book in that series, The Neon Graveyard, came out in May; I'll get around to reviewing the first one eventually, but after this book I'm in no hurry.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Oddly enough, Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame set, in which a D&D group gets pulled into a real magical world and given the powers of their characters. The disconnect between casual gaming and fighting for their lives is vivid in a way that The Taken doesn't quite manage.

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