Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Devil in the Details

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Short and sweet (307 pages)
Publication: July 6, 2010 from Roc Fantasy
Premise: Jesse James Dawson acts as a champion for those who have sold their souls and come to regret it, putting his own soul on the line to win back the souls of others. Not many people are willing to go into such a line of work, and now one of them is missing, without any of the normal signs to indicate that he has lost a fight. The duels always follow specific rules, but now those rules are somehow changing, and Jesse needs to find out what's happening before he's caught in the same trap.
Warnings: There's a bit of gore, but nothing too objectionable.
Recommendation: Give this a try, particularly if you're interested in a protagonist who really is living a normal life (complete with a child and a mortgage) instead of balancing an exciting career with his adventures.

What makes this one refreshingly different:

After so many novels of a wisecracking magical investigator working with the mortal police, it's great to see a character set up with a more solitary line of work. Jesse Dawson's career as a Champion means that he travels to different cities to get in touch with people who want him to battle to retrieve their souls, often with stints in the ICU in between missions. Stewart does a great job focusing on the realistic stress of that job, particularly when Jesse is musing about the difficulty of getting an insurance company to continue covering him after some of the more dangerous fights. She (yes, the K. is for Kari) also makes the same point that Thurman does in Nightlife: when your life has be be somewhat rootless because of supernatural threats that impose their own schedule, it's nearly impossible to hold down a reputable day job. This means that Jesse works in It, a punk-goth shop that seems like a more entertaining version of Hot Topic. He knows that he's capable of more challenging work, but he enjoys the calm repetition and the way he can be a protective figure to the teenage workers, who all refer to him as "old dude." More to the point, his retail shifts help keep the family afloat, since his fees are quickly eaten up by medical bills and weapons maintenance; this makes it clear that he charges money for some jobs because he has to, not out of greed.

Money is all the more important because Jesse has a young daughter; his wife could in theory make things work on her own, but it would be tight. Anna, the five-year-old girl, shapes the story in a multitude of ways. Jesse is sorry to feel like he's missing her childhood while paying the bills, but he does have to work to provide for her, which is a common enough struggle. He also teaches her katas as just one more fun activity with dad, with the intention of teaching her how to defend herself when she's older but without knowing if he'll ever live to see that day. Each mission he takes is one more chance for him to be dragged into Hell with no soul, and he has to balance the value of saving people's souls with the risk of leaving his daughter to grow up with no father. Miraculously, the struggle simply lingers as a source of tension without becoming melodramatic and overdone, and it's hard not to sympathize with Jesse's struggle with both mundane and supernatural opponents. He's an average man with a mortgage and a family, in addition to concerns beyond that, but he can never definitively place one above the other.

Interestingly, the risks weigh all the more heavily on Jesse because he is the only champion with no ability to channel magic into combat and thus keep himself safer. Mira is able to cast wards on their house and protective spells on his gear, but he's still an ordinary mortal going into combat with demons. Making the main character vulnerable or unskilled in so visible a way without providing a huge power-up before the end of the book is honestly rare, but Stewart does it with grace. Jesse has gotten used to fighting with the help of good equipment and long practice, so the idea of magic helping him out is an idle daydream that he's convinced will never actually happen. Most protagonists caught without a certain talent are either dead convinced that it will come eventually, envious of those who do have it, or resentful and bitter at the unfairness of it all. Jesse simply doesn't care much, and that--combined with his love of baseball and his pickup truck--helps cement the redneck side of his personality.
The mechanics of the universe work well, with mysteries like what Hell is actually like or how Mira's Wiccan magic actually works left obscured while the mechanics of bargaining for souls are articulated in literally painful details. Each condition of the duel to which Jesse and the demon agree results in a small tattoo being agonizingly burned into the skin of his arm, and it will only vanish if he wins the duel and has clear ownership of his soul back again. By the time he's done with one negotiation session the tattoos have burned their way up his forearm and he and the demon have specified everything from weapons of choice to the phase of the moon under which the battle will be fought. Not every single condition is spelled out in the text, but the impression of hours going by makes it clear that demons are clever enough to turn anything and everything to their advantage if one isn't careful; that cunning, combined with the way their names crawl and twist in the listener's head, makes them honestly scary in a way that few urban fantasy monsters are. The demons are wrong to human senses, and that flavor holds up quite well, especially when the loopholes finally take their toll.

A similar vein of realism flows through most of the minor characters; even Jesse's young boss and coworkers who barely get two lines feel like real people with lives that we simply don't see; Axel is particularly good. Axel is a demon who approaches Jesse almost every day to bargain for his soul; the two have sort of a hostile truce going on, and it has lasted long enough for them to play regular chess games. He shows up by possessing small animals, which normally die when he leaves them, and Jesse has resigned himself to burying those animals. Things shift when Axel has information that Jesse needs and gets desperate, hounding Jesse to stop fighting for the souls of people he loves or to share his daughter's name. On some level Axel is cruel, but he's also operating according to rules that say that he can't offer something for nothing, and demons who break rules have gotten other Champions killed. He's caught between points of principle and worry and the desire to finally get Jesse's soul, and it all just works brilliantly.

Much though I hate to compare things to the Dresden Files when I don't have to, the loose organization of Champions is reminiscent of Butcher's Knights of the Cross; it's far from a ripoff, but some of the dynamics are similar. These people are more cynical, sometimes charging exorbitant fees or working for those who sold their souls for selfish motives, but the ties and honor that bind them together really stand out. Ivan is a Hungarian Champion who started seeking out other fighters so that they could keep an eye on each other, watch out for problematic clients, and generally connect to those fighting the same darkness. Like Sanya, Butcher's agnostic Knight, Jesse isn't sure whether he believes in God, and that doubt mingled with his sense of honor makes for a delightful blend. He know that he's fighting the good fight, but he also worries constantly about caring for his family and is generally lacking in faith; after someone has wished that God bless him, he reflects that it would have happened already if it was going to happen at all. He's realistic without cynicism or judgement of those who hold the faith, and it's respectful all around.

The red pen: 

Unfortunately, thinking of the Champions as grittier and less-ordered cousins of the Knights of the Cross invites comparisons of Mira to Charity Carpenter (force of nature extraordinaire), and that's...honestly just a disappointment. Jesse loves his wife, which is absolutely understandable, but he also very nearly worships her, and while putting up with a stressful lifestyle in which her husband might die is laudable, the person he describes and the person we see are very different. Mira is said to be very intimidating, fierce, prone to holding her ground and not putting up with an ounce of nonsense from anyone; various friends in the novel seem to confirm this view. When Mira is actually in view, however, she mainly fusses over Jesse. She's resistant to the idea of resting from magic that could help him, but she doesn't confront him about it with any real intensity, and it seems like half of her scenes consist of volunteering to watch Anna even though she's tired so Jesse can go do something else, or cooking food while he tries to offer to help and then backs down at the first glare. Don't get me wrong, it can be great to see scenes of married couples sacrificing for each other, but when it's combined with Mira's teary stoicism, it seems like she's doing all the giving, and I really don't know why she puts up with him.

Jesse is a self-proclaimed modern samurai, and for the most part it works fairly well, but every so often it edges cultural appropriation; he's a white man who was instructed in the ideals of the samurai by a black man instead of (and yes, this is a direct quote) "a tiny little Asian man in my life, a Mr. Miyagi to set me on my path." This is one of those things that's tricky to explain, because no, there really isn't anything wrong with admiring and embracing another culture's ideals and central texts as part of your life. Taking a step beyond that, though....Jesse uses a katana, has bonsai and a rock garden, wants koi, feels bad for not using bamboo armor, and overall seems really attached to the trappings of Japanese culture. Yes, many philosophical samurai writings go far beyond combat, but since Jesse makes no mention of having ever been to Japan or so much as spoken to a Japanese person who's also interested in those writings, it seems like he's trying to adopt a totally lost way of life when the culture that created that way of life is still alive and kicking. It's not obtrusive, but it gets awkward to read in places.

The way Jesse wraps himself in the bushido lifestyle can be intriguing, but the way he talks about those principles doesn't work very well. With mini-speeches culminating in things like "[A samurai] should protect the weak and advocate good over evil. Shirking that duty would be a great act of dishonor. And that's just not who I am," I kept wincing and hoping for the next shift in focus. Codes of honor work better if the character holding them either genuinely cannot contemplate deviating from them or if the temptation is strongly present in ways that bring the code into focus without the character lingering on it. The idea of a redneck samurai who believes in chivalry is a a beautifully unconventional blend, but saying "if I did X, I wouldn't be who I am" tends to undermine the author's point; showing a character's hard choices is almost always better than discussing them. Similarly, spending an hour and a half planning your next fight is less exciting than actually fighting, and there are only two fights in the whole book.

I do like the backstory of how Jesse got into bushido as a rebellious teenager, and that might help out with the clunky telling were it not for some of the other backstory. As it says on the back cover, Jesse got into the demon-fighting business because he needed to get his brother's soul back; his brother had sold his soul to save his infant son. It's interesting that such a success would make the brothers grow apart instead of closer together, but it went down that way and we barely know why. Stewart devotes less than five pages to the whole incident from start to finish when there's honestly enough there to be a whole book without breaking a sweat. We learn that Jesse went into it with a sword and raw stupidity and the Mira's Wiccan powers were somehow relevant to the resolution, but Jesse seems anxious to rush past the incident rather than touching on any details like what made him decide to stay with the business once his brother was safe or what it was like to learn what Mira really knows.

All in all, this one has some promise, especially for a debut novel. Odds are I'll check out the rest of the trilogy when the third book is out and I have some spare time to burn. This one wasn't quite a shining beacon of excellence, but it was a solidly fun read and a light way to spend an afternoon. 

Prospects: The third book in the trilogy,  A Wolf at the Door, comes out this August. The second one, A Shot in the Dark, apparently has sort of a horror-movie flavor but is good fun. 

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Nightlife by Rob Thurman. It explores the brother angle in a way that this book chooses not to, and it's fun to see a character with a spottier moral compass but more fierceness. The books touch on similar themes, with each one centering on vastly different strengths with a unified underlying flavor of struggling just to get from one day to the next.

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