Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Better Part of Darkness

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Decently long without dragging (394 pages)
Publication: November 24, 2009 from Pocket Books
Premise: Charlie Madigan is an investigator with the Integration Task Force, a group created to help the Elysians and Charbydons from the magical realms work their way into normal life. Some days the job is quiet, but this time a supernatural drug is going around the streets and has finally struck someone close to Charlie's daughter. Being a divorced mother isn't easy, especially when you're still recovering from being dead, and solving the newest case tests Charlie's already-frayed limits to the breaking point.
Warnings: Abundant blood and gore, occasional sexual harassment vibes
Recommendation: There's enough that's unusual about this one in good ways to make it well worth trying; give it a spin and see if you like the style despite Charlie's absolutely baffling lack of common sense in places.

What makes this one different and fun: 

The greatest strength of this book by far is the way that the narrator explains her world, adding new facts only when they're relevant instead of giving giant blocks of exposition. We learn very early on that the realms of Elysia and Charybdon made their presence public thirteen years ago and that people are still catching up with the implications, but the explanation is utterly natural, flowing as part of her Charlie's conversation and thought processes. Many books that feature the "coming out" of the supernatural community (and we'll leave the tackiness of using the phrase that way for another post) tend to either drown the reader in detail as soon as possible trying to explain everything or just go "oh, those people exist" and then pull out new ones whenever it's convenient. The first method is boring and the second can create the feeling of a shallow universe that doesn't function according to rules at all, so seeing that Kelly Gay has a delightfully light touch right in the middle really adds to the solidity of the worldbuilding.

Many Elysians, including groups like nymphs and sirens, and Charbydons, including species like Jinn or goblins, have taken up residence on earth because it's fun or different, and they feel like realistic people. A pair of Elysian Adonai, the ruling class, get positively mean-girl catty at Charlie for daring to pollute the bathhouse with her presence, and another Adonai is a psychotic serial killer. One of the Charbydon nobles is willing to work against his fellows and side with humans at least temporarily in an effort to rescue the dying Charbydon moon that supplies their world with its only light; the politics and effects of that issue are really great and too spoiler-laden to go into here. The realms may have parallels with heaven and hell, and the Charbydons are more likely to be involved in something shady, but they also come from a dark and chaotic world that has shaped them in different way. The unfolding mystery about what the different species are doing and why plays to the realistic strengths of the universe, exploring things like prejudice against human-Jinn hybrids and how magic plays into law enforcement.

Charlie feels quite realistic early on in the book as she fleshes out the standing relationships in her life. Hank, her partner at ITF (Integration Task Force) is a male siren who wears a voice modulator to prevent his unaltered voice from compelling people into obedience at his every request. The two banter with the believable ease of old friends who love minding each other's business, seeming somewhat split between being siblings and being ten-year-olds with vague crushes on each other. They're attracted to each other, both taking whatever opportunities to appreciate the view that they can find, but it's treated matter-of-factly. Neither of them is truly willing to take the leap into a relationship, and they're both interested in other people, so they flirt without it going any further; seeing that without any angst is heavenly. The angst does still show up, thankfully in a believable way, when Charlie runs into her ex-husband, Will. He was involved in black crafting, which led to their divorce; while they still want to be together, Charlie isn't sure she can trust him and is still hurting from the broken trust. It's rare to find protagonists in this genre who aren't single, in and out of relationships, or happily married, and Gay pulls their dynamic off well.

Will and Hank are definite figures in Charlie's life without forming the points on a love triangle, and she feels some measure of attraction to quite a few men she only sees briefly, including Aaron the warlock, who is interested in her sister Bryn. Bryn herself is an unusual figure, at first coming across as just a whimsical hippie who runs a magic supply store and can give Charlie useful tools and information. Later it becomes obvious that loving her sister and her niece doesn't keep her from being angry at the way Charlie avoids her problems and won't even talk about many of them; she's a good stand-in for the reader in her irritation at Charlie's avoidance, and their confrontations are definitely believable as the final flashpoint of a problem that's been building for years. Bryn knows that Charlie wants to protect her baby sister, but she resents the patronizing attitude and the presumption that she can't be trusted to make her own decisions.

On the lighter side of the realistic characters we find Rex, a Revenant. He made a bargain, exchanging one character's body and soul for the granting of their greatest desire, but the character died an untimely death. This means that, in accordance with the bargain, the soul is tucked in some sort of limbo and the body is his to use until it dies a natural death. This is the sort of thing that comes of as appalling and cruel at first glance...but Rex ends up being one the best characters in the book. He thought he had a dozen years to wait until this character died, and he's willing to put that newly-won body in danger to resolve unfinished business, which in this case includes helping rescue Emma, since the character in question died while Emma was being kidnapped. Rex is witty and charming, sharing stories about how his last body's great desire was to be the star of a dinner theater program; he fulfilled that wish with style and then stayed with the man's wife at her request, living out a fairly normal life. He claims human bodies because he likes feeling things, eating and the wind and the texture of his own skin, and it's hard to hate him for that; writing a body-snatcher spirit as essentially a decent person replacing a minor character was a bold move, and it paid off.

The red pen: 

Much though I enjoy the way magic and the different species work, the way the individual characters interact with it occasionally gets bothersome. Aaron, the warlock who knows Bryn and is trying to teach Charlie, seems perfectly at ease; he's a scholar and thief with a very realistic grasp of his own abilities, and he's also at least a few centuries old. Bizarrely, he's impressed when Charlie responds to him saying that power sources aren't good or evil in themselves with "It's like wealth. The actual money isn't good or evil--it doesn't care either way--it's what you do with it." This is an incredibly basic analogy given his previous explanation, and he's surely taught students before. People are already impressed with Charlie's raw power levels, and trying to convince readers that Charlie is extra-smart for grasping that "it is our choices that make us who we are, Harry, far more than our abilities" just makes it tiresome; this is not in any way a profound or new concept. The woman has scads of power, martial arts skills, weapons, and a great relationship with her daughter; it's really okay for intelligence to be her dump stat. (Yes, I spend too much time hanging out with fellow gamers, and I am not sorry at all.)

The power level itself is fascinating, but it's also a little too Chosen One in some ways. Her mostly-human bloodline has been mingled with Elysian and Charbydon blood that gives her access to all sort of power, but she's the only one in all the world who hasn't died quickly from the mingling of the three. We're told that the two types of power warring will eventually pull her apart and kill her, but so far she seems to be suffering from nothing worse than nightmares, which makes the doomed to die thing seem deliberately tragic in a way that seems designed to manipulate the reader into feeling sorry for her. This is hardly uncommon in the genre; protagonists with unusual powers are outsiders who have to carve out their own places in the world without the benefit of people who are like them and thus lacking in natural allies. Being the only one of anything in the world makes you a target, which means you'd need stupid amounts of power, and sometimes that spiral works, but sometimes it just feels attention-seeking. Given that Charlie has so many close allies from the get-go and picks up more so easily, this is swinging more towards pointless angst over something that could be be a valuable tool.

While Charlie's pointless displays of egotistical temper and posturing are less obnoxious than those in either Red Hot Fury or Child of Fire, she still comes off as obnoxiously immature in places. She's always ready to jump into situations without backup or even a real plan. The most ridiculous example is probably when Charlie hides in the back of a limo belonging to Mynogan, the Charbydon who has been appearing in her nightmares and who could kill her easily, in order to have a fairly pointless conversation in which she learns very little and spends half the time mouthing off instead of playing along even a little to learn something useful. She calls people holding her captive idiots, interrogates a suspect on the street when he tries to warn her that they could be being watched, and generally likes to charge in and ask questions before she even knows what those questions ought to be about. This is understandable when her daughter is missing, but even before that she acts in a very blunt way that seems impossible to sustain as a member of a police force.

Speed and confidence are good, but Charlie comes off as arrogant in ways that make her less likeable. In the middle of fights her internal monologue tends to include tidbits like "I might have been smaller and lighter, but I could bring any male to his knees" or "they always fell for that." Yes, martial arts training can do a great deal to level the playing field when fighting against someone larger and stronger. And yes, it makes sense for Charlie to win against enormous opponents when rage is giving her extra strength, but generally....she seems too arrogant about her ability to win fights even against supernatural creatures with control of their power unless she's heavily outnumbered. This isn't to say that arrogance is generally a bad character trait; in the right hands it works wonders. The problem is that Charlie is arrogant without necessarily having the oomph to back it up; some protagonists have an ace up their sleeves, some know the opponent will enough to predict the next few minutes, some are really excellent at bluffing, and some rely on surprise. Charlie relies on power that she doesn't understand and raw temper even when she ends fights in really awful shape, and some indication that she understands how bad the odds are would go a long way to making her less grating.

The arrogance in dangerous situations gets all the more annoying when Charlie's out of combat and musing about her life. Her angsty introspection tells first and shows later, with all the subtlety of "How had I become so good at avoidance?" or "I centered myself and then shoved any thoughts of Will and my feelings aside, but the ache was still there like a thorn stuck under my rib cage. Just add it to all the other aches and regrets." She does have it hard, but she spends so much time rambling about how sad and torn she is that it's frankly hard to care. Many other people in the story are suffering just as much, if not more so; when Hank is injured and denied access to his powers, Charlie spends more time being jealous that he went Zara, to his fellow siren and crush, for help instead of her than trying to actually do something for him. She knows magic users and a brilliant scientist, but instead of planning to ask them for help, she just....mopes over Hank partially blaming her for the accident. In all honesty, it would be accurate blame: a list of all the times that Charlie goes somewhere without backup and puts herself and others in danger would take pages. This makes her relationship with her superior officer as some sort of unorthodox golden child all the more bizarre; she's a loose cannon and bad at the chain of command, with almost no patience or self-control, in a similar vein to how Kris Longknife acts.

Not all of the secondary characters feel like real or compelling people. The worst offender by far is Emma, Charlie's eleven-year-old daughter. Not to put too fine a point of it, but kids at that age are not this consistently mature, fearless, noble, and sweet. It really seems like she's written in this way so that Charlie has a focus or inspiration point to use when she's drawing on the brighter and more healing-oriented side of her powers rather than because she's an actual preteen. I'd buy that she was just mature for her age if she seemed to have character flaws, but she's a fairly generic sassy-sweet kid who loves her family and toughs it out in scary situations. Her only real problem appears to be thinking that her parents should get back together because her dad is sorry and loves Charlie very much, which is mainly an issue of naïveté in not realizing that cheating on someone and hiding an addiction is an enormous breach of trust and that Charlie is already being more than reasonable by being civil to her ex-husband and making sure that Emma gets as much time with him as possible.

The last itching minor problem is that the characters occasionally just....try too hard to sound cool, for lack of a better explanation. Bryn's response to "that's not true" in the middle of a serious discussion is "uh, yeah it is!" I almost expected her to start popping bubble gum for emphasis.The banter is good enough most of the time that these little bits keep sticking out; it's about the same low-but-annoying dosage that showed up in Ill Wind.

All in all, The Better Part of Darkness is really an intriguing read, and I have high hopes for the rest of the series. If Charlie learns some magical control and Emma goes through puberty with the realistic ups and downs of her teenage years, this could be quite good, especially after the ramifications of the ending.

Prospects: The fourth book in the series, Shadows Before the Sun, comes out in July.

Enjoyed this? Also try: 
~Ill Wind handles the unique powers and danger in a smoother way than this does, especially given the integration into the modern world. The Wardens have to hide more then the magical creatures of Charlie Madigan's world, but something about the mood strikes me as similar. 

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