Midnight Taxi Tango
by Daniel José Older
It's official: Daniel José Older is now on my authors-to-watch list. I first encountered Older through his YA book, Shadowshaper. While Shadowshaper is a rich, vibrant story, Bone Street Rumba is right down my alley. I love urban fantasy, underpowered protagonists, and political skirmishes in the magical world. Add to that a set of complex, interesting characters, a gritty plot, and some seriously creepy roach dudes, and I was sold. TL;DR: Half-Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba#1) just became my first book purchase of the year.
The story is narrated by Carlos, a half-dead agent for the Council for the Dead and the protagonist of the previous book, Reza, a driver/hitter for a local gang, and Kia, a mischievous teenager who works at a botánica and finds herself pulled inextricably into the center of events. There's a reason why Kia is on the front of the cover (and have I mentioned i loved the cover?) instead of Carlos, who is pretty much worse than useless for the whole book. One of the reasons I picked up the first book is that I'm rather interested to see what Carlos was like when he was actually effective and didn't just spend all his time angsting and moping. Kia, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. I loved her constant banter with Carlos:
"I smile. “Things will go much easier for you when you realize that I know everything.”
"We’ve been through this already, C, and we don’t have time to go through it again. If you leave me behind, I’ll do something stupid like follow you all by myself and get killed and then you’ll feel guilty. Let’s save ourselves an argument we both already know I’m gonna win.”
She has some interesting depths as a character, from a traumatic childhood experience to her insight while navigating a biased world.
The politics of Midnight Taxi Tango are less overt and more nuanced than Shadowshaper, but all the more interesting and effective for it. One of the subplots involves Capoeira, which, as the instructor notes,
"Is how my people survived European domination in Brazil [...] It is a martial art disguised as a dance, but it is also a dance disguised as a martial art. Why? Because we were not allowed to train to fight. We had to disguise our training as dancing, yes? We had to become clandestine warriors in a system that did not believe we are human, yes? Maybe this is something you can understand today, or maybe not."
Kia's perspective illuminates the pervasive racism she experiences:
"I’d never been to this neighborhood before. Maybe driven past once or twice with my dad, but it was all white folks, and the feeling of don’t belong, don’t belong hung heavy in the air, like all the molecules wanted me to leave too."
She perceives, and is angered by, the constant assaults on diversity surrounding her, from the white policeman who feels it is acceptable to harass her on the street to her realization that she, as a black woman, can get shot for carrying a sandwich, let alone a ghost-killing knife. One of my favourite moments was her reaction to a conversation between a group of white teenagers in the botánica:
"Kenny, what’s this mean, a love potion?”
“Yeah, that’s supposed to be bring the ladies right to you, man.”
“Let’s get it for Bill. Maybe Christine will stop friend zoning his ass.”
Wild laughter. Because really, what’s funnier than other people’s cultures and sexual coercion?"
Another aspect where I felt this book improved upon Shadowshaper was the humor. Midnight Taxi Tango was constantly, quotably funny. Carlos, Reza, and Tia each have their own unique narrative flair, and while I loved them all, the dialogue and situational humor tickled me to death; for example:
“So you brought the demon-child assassin to my house and locked him into the bathroom across from the girl he’s trying to kill?” My whisper is more like a strained cough.
“The fuck else was I sposta do with him, man?"
I feel like I've been saying this a lot lately, but while I felt like the plot was a bit of a mess, I just didn't care.(show spoiler)
Like Shadowshaper, Midnight Taxi Tango is a complex, vibrant, refreshing change from cookie-cutter urban fantasy. Add to that a set of villainous magical roaches--and who doesn't find roaches creepy, particularly when they crawl into your mouth or peel off your skin-- and a constant barrage of banter and situational comedy and I was utterly sold. Count me in for the sequel. And the prequel. And anything else Older has in store.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkeley Group Publishing, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~