Nightlife - Rob Thurman

where have I seen that before?

 

Nightlife (Cal Leandros, #1)

by

Rob Thurman

 

Recommended for: Fans of Supernatural

 

Nightlife wasn't what I expected. Given the blurb and cover (a mopey, darkhaired guy, dimly lit city), I thought I was in for a hardboiled detection/urban fantasy romp with the standard snarky, secretly idealistic, slightly tarnished white knight who ventures down the mean streets to try to bring a little justice back into the world, etc, etc. Instead, I was thrown into a world that I would describe (tautologically, I know) as "dark noir." I tend to stay out of dark noir, where the world is not so much shades of grey as totally lightless, where the protagonist commits atrocities that make it impossible to separate hero from villain, where the humour is black, the tone is nihilistic, and any idealism is strangled in its infancy. Nightlife puts a unique twist on dark noir. This world isn't actually nihilistic a la Cain or Kadrey's Sandman Slim, and there certainly is a very parfait (if not particularly gentil) knight on the scene, but Caliban Leandros, narrator, is literally part monster, the scion of an alcohol-sodden prostitute and a supernatural fiend.

As a child, Cal was spirited away by his monstrous sire into the hellish realm of the Auphe (a variant of elf, but not precisely the Santa's-little-helper variety), then apparently escaped, incoherent and almost bereft of sanity, and landed right back home. Cal's improbably self-sacrificial older brother, Nikos, promptly made made it his life's mission to protect and hide Cal from the monsters that dog their path. A few years later, Cal and Nikos are living it up in NYC--and the monsters are right on their trail. Even worse, there's something more sinister than the mere possession of Cal's body and soul at stake.

One thing I loved about the story was the narrative twist: the hero is not the same individual as the narrator. Cal, the narrator, is often heartbreakingly helpless while Niko must perform insane stunts of combat prowess and bitter sacrifices to protect and save his brother. Committing my usual sin of comparing all UF to the Dresden Files, it's as if the partly monstrous Thomas Raith started narrating Dresden's antics. (Oh wait, I guess that already happened--"Backup." Heh.) Cal makes for a somewhat morose and angsty protagonist; if you think Dresden is a whiner, you really, really don't want to meet Cal. Nikos fits the standard hero stereotypes: impossibly handsome, suave, intelligent, and with almost supernatural fighting prowess. (He also wears a duster at one point--a definite tell for determining the UF hero.) In fact, all of the characters are sort of on the superhero model--everyone has a special talent and everyone tends to be impossibly good-looking and improbably fantastic at battle. The general setup--two brothers born of tragedy fighting the supernatural, the younger one a part-monster who is destined to help end the world, the older one determined to do anything and sacrifice anything to save him--feels scarily similar to the TV show Supernatural. In my opinion, Supernatural did a much better job in making Nikos/Dean rounded, imperfect, and ultimately likable, but Thurman creates a much more sympathetic Cal/Sam. If Nikos, a blonde and ponytailed James Bond, had been the narrator, I would have found him unbearable, but through the eyes of his hero-worshipping baby brother, he had a certain charm. I can understand Cal's slightly grudging adoration; I have an older sister, after all. At the same time, their relationship left me with the same vague sense of embarrassment I get seeing wrestlers practice grappling--just a bit too intimate. Cal's sense of self is so closely tied to his brother that in some ways, he lacks his own identity. His role as a narrator gives us a unique glimpse into his thoughts and helps, perhaps paradoxically, to create a less egocentric character than that of Sam in Supernatural. In terms of narrative voice, I do think Cal overdid the cursing; I think I saw a maximum of three contiguous profanity-free pages.

What I had real trouble with is the narration switch in the middle into a pure "dark noir" narrator, a character gleefully and sickeningly evil. Literally over half of the book is spent in the head of this character as he scampers around the city, dealing out pain and misery and reporting his sick pleasure at the prospect of suffering to the reader. This is where I felt the book shifted into dark noir; while it maintains a clear sense of morality, narration by a sick psychopath is one of the hallmarks of this subgenre, and the reason that I avoid it. I spent the entire section bouncing between horror and disgust, and there was no detection or mystery to relieve my intellect from the ick-factor. Although I felt sick at the pain of their ordeal, I had trouble bonding with the characters, even the protagonists, because I felt trapped in the head of a sick monster. While I could abstractly recognize the skill of a writer who made me feel that horrified but kept me reading and engaged, this was not my type of book.

The world that Thurman creates is everything I could ask of good urban fantasy pulp. Thurman uses the absurd to balance the almost unrelenting pain in most of the novel: there's a vampire who traded in blood for iron supplements, Robin Goodfellow practices his smarms and charms as a used car salesman, and a psychic medium holds her practice in an ice cream parlour. At the same time, the city hides disgusting bog creatures, the predatory Auphe, and one of the most horrific characterizations of a troll I have ever encountered. Not only does she use mood whiplash from comedy to horror to great effect, but Thurman also understands the most important principle of evoking horror: that true terror lies not in catalogues of gore-ridden monstrosities but in allusions and brief glimpses. She gives just enough details of the atrocities to make me wince, then merely hints at the rest, leaving my imagination to paint in the remainder in the gaudy shades of pain and terror. Overall, while it may not be a great fit for readers who tend towards only slightly hardboiled fiction, this is a fantastic read for someone who likes their noir seriously dark and gritty.