...I had not thought death had undone so many.
The Devil You Know (Felix Castor, #1)
Despite the etymology of his name, Felix "Fix" Castor feels anything but happy or lucky. In his altered world, in which the dead have risen and now pace the streets as zombies and ghosts, Felix's skills as an exorcist are at a premium. After a terrible accident in which he helped to bind a friend's soul to a demon, Felix is trying to take early retirement from the ghostbuster business. With money tight and fear on the rise, it's just not that easy for Felix to hang up his exorcism flute. To earn a bit of much-needed cash, he takes on one last exorcism. It seems simple--a ghost in a museum who has suddenly taken to violence--but as always seems to be the case, things are never as simple as they appear. Far too soon, Felix is drawn into a web of conspiracy and brutality, with a mob boss expressing a rather sinister interest in him, a demon ready to hunt him down, and a loup-garou after his blood. Worse still, Felix is forced to question his own beliefs about life, death, and the supernatural.
The Devil You Know is a compelling read. I found Fix to be an engaging narrator and thought his wry, humorous voice was effective and appealing. It is a very dark read, without the genre-savvy absurdism that tends to characterize urban fantasy. There is humour, most of it decidedly British and involving references to Thatcher and Blue Peter, but I think it is the first urban fantasy novel I have ever read in which I was not tempted even once to laugh out loud. Most urban fantasy pits the protagonist against supernatural evils, but this book is about man's inhumanity to man, leading to a much darker, more upsetting, and more introspective book. It also calls into question many of the basic assumptions of most urban fantasy worlds.
For example, in most urban fantasy novels, because most of the villains faced in urban fantasy are nonhuman, removing them becomes a righteous act. We are told by the resident talking head--or, in the Dresden Files' case, the talking skull--that vampires don't have souls so a stake through the heart isn't murder, that since souls are just residual carbon copies, a salt-and-burn operation at a graveside is just a guilt-free janitorial exercise, that the creature being hunted is a monster and removing a monster is a moral act. But in Felix Castor's case, the greatest monsters are the other people. Even loup-garou are people in some ways, since they are ghosts possessing animal bodies, and it is the human intelligence that makes them vicious. What happens to an exorcised ghost is unknown. Is he damning the souls of those dead, or releasing them to a better hereafter? That open question makes the tone of the novel very gritty and saturnine, but also creates a complex and compelling world.
The overall feel of the novel is very noir hardboiled detective; we have the standard mob boss and femme fatale plot arcs and quite a reasonable mystery. At the same time, the perpetrator becomes pretty obvious about halfway through, and waiting for the naive Felix to catch up is frustrating. It bothered me how obvious Rich was, from the moment we know the ghost is a victim. Rich is the only person that she attacks and he knows Russian--connection! but claims to be the only person she hasn't spoken to. But Felix continues to trust him implicitly ridiculously long after these facts come to light. If you're looking at this review, I assume you're looking for Dresden Files methadone, so as a bit of comparison: this book reminded me a lot of Grave Peril, but it is even more unrelentingly dark, and, in the end, it is humans rather than vampires who are the root of all evil. In addition, while Jim Butcher is remarkably sympathetic to Christianity and Catholicism, Mike Carey goes out of his way to castigate the Church as rigid and hypocritical. I'm no longer Christian--I misplaced my faith and it hasn't yet turned up in the lost and found--but even I was appalled at the vitriol applied to the religion. Last, there is the difference in the protagonists. Harry Dresden affects an air of world-weary cynicism, but his idealism, optimism, and rather happy-go-lucky attitude always end up breaking the facade. Fix is the real deal as far as jaded world-weariness goes, but unlike "protagonists" such as Richard Kadrey's James Stark, he has not caved into self-serving nihilism. Felix still believes in right and wrong and wants to do the right thing with an almost painful intensity. What makes this book such a dark and compelling read is that it is simply not always easy to figure out, in a complex and twisted world, exactly what constitutes the moral act.
Overall, I very much enjoyed The Devil You Know. I loved the imaginative construction of the loup-garou and thought Fix was an appealing character. I plan on picking up the sequel, although the unrelentingly dark mood of the story means it may not be any time soon.