~~Moved from GR~~
by Rob Thurman
This is one of those books I enjoyed, but also kind of enjoyed hating. I kept a running snarky commentary going in my head the entire time I read it...but I just couldn't put it down. I think the easiest way to describe my reaction to this book is in terms of buttered popcorn jelly beans.
Yes, these bizarre candies exist--they're made by the American company, "Jelly Bellies." In abstract, the concept is repulsive, but they looks so pretty that you pop one in your mouth. The taste is bizarre, a weird mixture of abrasive saltiness and supremely gooey sweetness. When I first tried a buttered popcorn jelly bean, I made a horrible face...but it was so weird that I tried another one out of slightly sickened fascination. And before I knew it, I found I actually kind of liked the taste... and then I was addicted and had eaten the whole handful. The book was just like that--even while I groused and mocked, I just kept reading.
Thurman writes in the hardboiled noir subgenre of urban fantasy, but she brings a lot of elements from other forms of UF as well, and unfortunately, they aren't exactly my favourite aspects of either. Thurman's book has all the violence, profanity, and sexism from the noir side(disappointingly, it doesn't even pass the Bechdel test), but somehow it still packs in quite a bit of overwrought angst and glutinous, saccharine language. Personally, I think Thurman fails to capture the true style of hardboiled noir, which is characterized by lots of snappy dialogue sparsely interspersed with exposition via snarky narration. Thurman's book does have dialogue, but basically every line of it is followed by eight to ten lines of explanation. Any innuendo, any references, any jokes are thoroughly and painstakingly explained by the narrator. For me, it totally destroys the flow and impugns the intelligence of the reader. Not every detail needs to be explained--outside references help to build up mystery, history, and dimensionality. Even the repartee feels forced and unnatural to me, as does the narration. Cal combines the use of contractions and a truly gratuitous amount of profanity with allusions to Yeats and Eliot, and I think that is part of why the voice just doesn't feel genuine to me. To break up her tendency to tell rather than show, Thurman often describes physical interactions between characters, especially the brothers. Cal mentions every time they touch one another--no, not like that, but even so, it just feels weird, awkward, and a bit slashy. The following is a standard interaction:
"Catching his knife, he uncoiled and moved to the edge of the bed. Tapping my knee with the point of his throwing blade, he asked quietly, 'Are you alright?'...There was one more tap, oddly reassuring; then the knife vanished."
I get that Thurman is trying to set a scene. It just comes off as somewhat off--too histrionic or something--to me.Take the gooey sweetness of overwrought language and angst, add in the salty language and often extremely disturbing imagery, and to me, it's the worst of both worlds. But despite all that, I just kept reading.
There were two reasons why: I think Thurman's skill at creating an entertaining plot and an enthralling world are absolutely top-notch. I got hooked in the plot and I found the twists and turns immensely satisfying.
The second reason is less complementary: the characters remind me very, very strongly of the TV show Supernatural (SPN), and I really enjoyed analyzing the similarities and differences. SPN is about the exploits of two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who go around alternately hunting monsters and trying to stop the apocalypse. I'm not accusing either franchise of plagiarism--the start dates were so close that neither inspiration nor influence would be possible. But all the same...
Both involve a lot of snark, absurdity, gallows humour, angst, and mood whiplash. The plot features a pair of brothers, with most of the overarching story regarding the younger, part-supernatural brother and his role in a demonic plan to bring about the apocalypse.
In both series, the brothers:
--spend a lot of time on the run with lots of fake identities
--hunt down various paranormal monsters
--are perfect foils for one another
--are from broken, abusive families, with the older brother effectively raising the younger
--have a mother who made a deal with a demon and died by fire
--have allies that include a few badass supernaturals, an occasional Action Girl (who still never manages to get significant screentime) and significant Damsel in Distress subplots.
The older brothers (Niko/Dean) both:
--are blonde, (currently) short-haired, and handsome
--get some guff for being ladykillers
--have a tendency to collect and carry a wide variety of random weapons
--are very possessive about their elderly cars, which they call their "baby"
--effectively gave up their childhoods to raise their younger brother
--sacrified all other ambitions to protect and care for the brother
--due to their roles in protecting their brothers, end up as "enemy number one" of the demonic beings
--are "badass normal" and are afraid of their siblings' superpowers, but try to hide it
--have a male supernatural being (Castiel in Dean's case, Goodfellow in Nik's), the third member of the merry gang, who has a rather unhealthy obsession with them, but this is apparently reciprocated only with friendship. (It's WAY more overt in Goodfellow's case--he explicitly says he has a crush on Nik.)
The younger brothers (Cal/Sam) both:
--have long, dark hair to go with a general mopey, emo affect
--have a massive clown phobia that their brothers repeatedly mock
--have a touching belief that their big brothers will always be there to rescue them
**spoiler for SE1 of SPN**(show spoiler)
But hey, maybe I'm just imagining the similarities.
Their personalities are different, however. Niko has all of Sam's intelligence and obsession with fitness and health food; Cal has Dean's sloppiness and love of fast food and apparent need to annoy everyone in sight. I found that I liked the character of Dean much more than Niko, but I like Cal much more than Sam. Dean is a quirky, screwed-up mess of contradictions with abandonment issues, with his total absence of self-worth hidden behind a facade of bravado and snarkiness, and a truly inappropriate sense of humour, often of the gallows variety. Niko is basically what you would get if you had someone design the Perfect Boyfriend Ken Doll : handsome, romantic, intelligent, self-sacrificing, practical, reasonable, articulate...and really, really boring. But the greatest difference in their character is seen even in their ultimate choices with their demon-touched brothers: Niko will do everything possible to avoid it, but when the choice comes down to saving his brother or saving the world, Niko realizes that personal is not the same as important. Dean, on the other hand, has proved that he will make ridiculously destructive choices to protect his brother. Yet although I believe it is Niko who makes the "right" choice, I find his painfully clinical decision much less endearing than Dean's selfish one, just as I find Dean's very flawed character more endearing than Niko's perfect one.
Cal and Sam are also different, which makes sense due to the whole "perfect foil" thing. I think one of the most beneficial things about the book is that we are able to get into Cal's head, whereas Sam remains somewhat enigmatic. I see Sam as egocentric and self-righteous, with a tendency to focus on principle (read "revenge") over people, tempts him into serious antihero territory. Cal is significantly less egocentric, more vulnerable, and self-doubting. His admiration for his brother shines through--yes, it's uncomfortably sappy and touchy-feely, but I think he actually does a slightly better job at capturing the weird combination of idolatry and resentment a younger sibling feels for an older one. (Yup, I'm a younger sibling.) Sam also has the (to me) unendearing habit of letting his past mistakes slide off him while still holding out resentment against those who wronged him. Cal tends to feel guilty and constantly worries over his impact on his brother's life and the lives of those around him. Yes, it means we're in for a lot more whining and angsting, but I found Cal much more likable. Hey, maybe it's a guilt thing. I like characters who feel guilt, maybe even over things they could not control, who take responsibility, and who accept consequences.
So should you read this book? If you're a fan of Supernatural, then definitely. I think you'll find it fun and entertaining, especially if, like me, you start envisioning the actors of SPN being forced to act out some of the gooier scenes. There's a lot going for it: sympathetic characters, a strong plot, and lots of action, but if you agree with Dean and think*,
well, then I'd be cautious about this one...like Nightlife, it has a lot of cringe-worthy descriptions and dialogue. While it has all the hardboiled UF trimmings, but with its writing style and the very angsty protagonists, it just really isn't a he-man action-dude book like the Dresden Files, Sandman Slim, Felix Castor, and similar. If you regularly read more angst-driven UF or PNR and don't mind a little more gore and blue language, then this one should definitely be on your reading list.
And me? Well, despite the odds, I ended up liking buttered popcorn jelly beans.
*Speaking of which, is it me, or does SPN consist almost entirely of chick flick moments and gratuitous gore? I'm not complaining, mind.