Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dead Things

Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Short and snappy (295 pages)
Publication: February 5, 2013 from DAW
Premise: Eric Carter's magic gifts tend in the direction of the dead, and he's been using them on the run for fifteen years. When he gets a call saying that his sister is dead, he has to go back to Los Angeles and attempt to track down her murderer. But the most likely suspect has been dead for fifteen years, and it's almost impossible to know who to trust.
Warnings: gore, corpse mutilation
Recommendation: If you really need a protagonist with a bleak outlook on life or want necromancy front and center, this one might be fun. It sometimes wallows in Eric's guilt and self-loathing, but the magic comes with some great quirks.

What keeps this one dark and gritty:

Eric Carter has spent fifteen years on the road, sleeping in grimy hotels and picking up magical knowledge from anyone who will teach him. He's almost managed to forget about the disaster that drove him away from home when the phone starts ringing....and refuses to stop even after he's unplugged it. The initial fight with another magician and the ensuing cryptic warnings from the Loas who paid him to take on the fight in the first place help add worldbuilding detail, but the phone call telling Eric that his sister Lucy is dead kicks the story into motion, with the terse present tense style leaving no room for fluff. Stephen Blackmoore refuses to flinch away from the fear and nastiness wrapped up in Eric's death magic, and that helps maintain the underlying grim tone. Eric is mostly covered in magical tattoos that help protect him from various threats, but he's left part of one forearm blank so that he can cut himself and offer blood to ghosts when he needs to seek information or instantly catch their attention. When he needs information from a corpse who hasn't left a ghost behind, he works on the dead flesh itself in a way that sweeps, hand-down, the competition of Who Can Make a Protagonist Do the Nastiest Thing (which no one was actually trying to win). It's off-putting in the moment, but also evokes fascinated horror if you have a strong stomach. He admits that he's not sure what's necessary ritual and what's fluff added in over the years, and that only makes his patchwork knowledge seem more believable.

The uses to which Eric puts his magic are creative-- when he's not busy with serious ritual or battles, he can use little tricks like scattering sunflower seeds at the doorway so ghosts will be distracted counting them, or writing false identities on nametag stickers to create compelling illusions. These aren't the most dramatic of moments, but having his car go unnoticed because it's labeled "Grey Honda Civic Totally Not a Cadillac" works, and that kind of efficiency would be great to see more often in this explosion-heavy genre. The closest parallel is probably A Madness of Angels, which also shares the idea of cities having their own magical natures and peculiarities--Eric touches on this on his drive back home, but there's very little exploration of whether spells are harder or easier in L.A. than he'd remembered. He had lots of room to explore this, especially since he spends time analyzing which buildings have been replaced since he left. Does reconstruction change the flavor of the city's magic pool, perhaps? At any rate, Eric is equally capable of either going for big effects or for spending five hours at a time going after information with a basic spell circle and offering of blood. He's presented with a problem and solves it without flinching, whether that's killing one of the living to avenge the dead or securing his escape-- it's nice to see flexible thinking paired with ruthlessness.

While magic can be unclear, Eric is constantly painting a clear picture of the world around him, in part because other people can't see the layers of ghosts the way that he can. Where he sees a threatening ghost wrapped around a friend, anyone with him might just see the person acting oddly and be shocked by any aggressive move he makes, so he's keenly aware of that difference. When he steps further away from normal experiences, the story gets all the more fascinating. In one early incident, he's surrounded by people who want to kill him and relocates to the realm of the dead, which overlaps the normal world but renders him invisible. In this place, he's prey and the ghosts are the predators who would tear him apart for the life in his blood given half a chance. Dealing with their hunger from inside a circle of salt is one thing, but when he's on the run, it's more dangerous and he has to resort to less savory distractions so that he can escape. He also has one excellent sequence, unfortunately involving lots of spoilers, when he enters into the realm controlled by a near-goddess of the dead. She has absolute control over the place, which is built largely of bones, and that chapter is an important calm spot before things start to explode.

The red pen:

Many of the trappings of the world are unusual and clever, but at its core the story feels a little generic, sticking too closely to a checklist of urban fantasy and horror movie conventions.  This can work when the characters have limited resources and firepower, as in Child of Fire, but Eric isn't restricted. If anything, he has too many options: a gun with a lethal energetic kick, a watch that no one thinks he should have, and magical tattoos all over his body that protect him from various threats. The tattoos in particular are a sticking point because Eric literally can't remember what all of them do and the reader never gets to see most of them. It seems like a get out of jail free card for future books, a way to have him up against the wall when he's suddenly saved by a tattoo that he's forgotten. The watch is also a bother in its own way; when opened, it sends out bursts of time that age the target; a few days might slow them down, but they can also be aged for eight years and wither into corpses in seconds. This is a powerful weapon that is never taken from Eric when he's captured or unconscious (and there are enough instances of both to make for a lovely drinking game), and he only uses it twice, once almost accidentally...despite the fact that it would have been truly useful later on in quite a few places. The overall impression is that Eric has vast capabilities that are useful when it's convenient for them to be, and that makes some of his idiotic decisions harder to contemplate.

It doesn't help that Eric himself has, to steal a phrase from J.K. Rowling, the emotional range of a teaspoon. He's always sad, angry, full of weary despair, or angsty about how he can't have happiness the way he used to. He briefly seems content when he's about to sleep with an attractive minor character, but otherwise he's only happy when waking from unconsciousness, before he remembers what's going on. He's back in town to figure out what happened to Lucy and is dealing with his own baggage, which makes some of it understandable; he wants to ensure that's there's no trace of Boudreau left. The magically gifted gangster was responsible for the death of his parents fifteen years ago, so he hunted Boudreau down, killed him, and shredded his soul into pieces. Soon after, he was told that his sister would die if he didn't leave town, so he hasn't been back. It's fair for him to feel isolated and edgy in the wake of that history, but he refuses to accept the help of old friends who are ready and willing to give him what he needs (presumably because his martyr complex has eaten his brain). When he does take help, it's a ragged and irregular process; first he's willing to endanger someone he loves by taking her into a potentially lethal warehouse, and then he magically prevents her from helping even though someone she loves could use the help and backup....because he can't stand the idea of her being in danger. It's selfish and angsty in a way that makes it easy to agree with the oft-repeated assessment that he's a coward, even though his actions elsewhere confirm that he's an antihero of sorts.

The secondary characters ought to shine and help break up his cloud of angst, but they just don't. Eric has a friend, another friend who happens to be a former love interest, and a temporary sex partner, but none of them are even interesting. Alex, the friend who let Eric know that his sister was dead, is apparently a pillar of the local community and a great person despite his past as a minor criminal, but only his actions in helping Eric are shown, so he's a sketch of a person who exists to make Eric feel guilty about abandoning the people he loves. He also has a genuine moral compass in a world grittier than your average bag of sand, so I'll leave you to your own guesses about his eventual fate. Vivian is Eric's ex-girlfriend, who he abandoned fifteen years ago without even saying goodbye, so they have an obvious and flat mix of sexual tension and resentment whenever they're in the same room. She wants to help him make sure that people are safe, misses him, and also hates him for being so ready to leave all those years ago; it's a potentially potent mix, but they never have a proper argument about it or address their shared history, only spat briefly and storm away from each other a few times.

Although the scenes in the various realms of the dead can be haunting and vivid at times, the leading characters among the dead seem to lack focus. The Loas who initially hired Eric to take out a necromancer give him a vague warning (no, really, it's "beware what you trust") along with his payment and then vanish. Santa Muerte, a powerful spirit of the dead who used to be an Aztec goddess, has the potential to be interesting but barely speaks. She wants Eric in her service because he can communicate with her directly in a way that her followers cannot; he knows that it's a bad idea and is unwilling to sacrifice his free will. She expected that response but is willing to trade a favor for a clue, giving him a hint about how to avenge his sister in exchange for him killing someone she wants gone. After that little arrangement, she completely vanishes for most of the rest of the book; even when she does return, there's no real clarity about why she wanted that person to die (unless her claim that she just wants to see how Eric will do in that fight can be trusted), or exactly what she would want Eric to do if he did swear to her. There's a good twist about her motives almost at the end, but the attentive reader will have figured it out several chapters ago, and the nature of the resolution there makes their initial conversation feel like cheating through sloppy conversational construction.

On the whole, Dead Things provides fun details without much substance or the light comedy that can sweep books in this genre along so well. It's dark and gritty, but it achieves that at the cost of a long character arc. Not every series can take nine books of setup before a hint pays off (Dresden Files, I'm looking at you), but the betrayals and personal sacrifices are shooting out most of his existing friends and emotional support in a way that's going to leave him isolated and with fewer vulnerabilities if this turns out to be a series. I'd be on the fence about reading the sequel to this, but absolutely on board with trying whatever Blackmoore writes next that isn't in this series, since my biggest problem here is Eric's somewhat whiny narrative voice.

Prospects: Dead Things has all the hallmarks of planning for a sequel, but I don't see any planned so far. I'll drop in an update if I see anything on that front.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Rob Thurman's Nightlife does a better job of addressing personal darkness without lingering on it-- Cal Leandros fights and uses and struggles to understand his less savory side, and those shifts in approach make the story more dynamic.
~For a more subtle take on how necromancers are separate from both the living and the dead, try Garth Nix's Sabriel. It's technically in the young adult section, but the characters have more common sense than most of the adults in this book.
~A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin really does have some of the most flexible and quirky magic I've seen in anything resembling urban fantasy. It's a slower and more dreamlike read than this, but it has a similar arc of someone who's been away for a while coming back to his old home and having to contend with old enemies who have grown far more dangerous in his absence.
~It's a little thing, but for better use of tattoos in a bleak world (though still containing fragments of hope), try Robin McKinley's Sunshine, one of the best vampire books I've ever read.

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