Thicker Than Water - Mike Carey

~~Moved from GR~~

Thicker than Water (Felix Castor #4)

by Mike Carey


Recommended for: I want to say "everyone," but I'll settle for "everyone who likes dark, gritty noir."

***WARNING: a main theme of this book is self-harm (specifically cutting) It isn't fetishised or romanticised, but Carey's writing is quite visceral and my review has quotes, so beware of triggers...***


It all starts with a jailbreak.
Felix "Fix" Castor, aided by the succubus Juliet, daringly swipe Fix's demon-possessed friend out from under the noses of the sadistic doctor who wants to take him apart to study him. Fix is just beginning to catch his breath when the police arrive on his doorstep. To his surprise, however, Fix isn't carted off to jail for kidnapping; instead, he is taken to the scene of a near-fatal assault. Much to his chagrin, the police didn't ask him over for his supernatural senses--they just want him to explain why "F Castor" is scrawled across the car window in blood. When Fix learns that the victim of the attack was a childhood enemy, his quest to discover the meaning behind the message leads him back into his murky past and into a darkening future.

This book left me breathless--and not just because I read it at the gym. It wasn't just the atmosphere and characters, or the scenes that ripped my heart into shreds, or the plot that kept me guessing into the second half of the book, or even the flawless worldbuilding; it was the visceral, visual nature of the scenes Carey painted and the way he used the template and tropes of pulp to delve into the duality and hypocrisy of human nature. Throughout the series, one of my favourite aspects has been Carey's use of the supernatural conflict as a metaphor for the story's more human tragedies-- a ghost's speech is stolen from her in the same way that her life as an illegal immigrant and prostitute left her without a voice, or spirits that physically steal men's bodies in much the same way that their entrepreneurial ruthlessness has trampled others.[1] This book explores a new theme: self-harm in all of is manifestations, from the supernatural to the mundane.

The location, too, the Salisbury estate, is one of Carey's best: Fix describes it as

"One step closer to Heaven....streets eighty feet of the ground...a city in the air...leave your worries on the ground, take to the skies and live clean. Only it turned out that you left a lot of other stuff on the ground, too... closer to Heaven, maybe, but you bring your weather with you."

It is a Babel whose towers were built to rival Heaven and is thus inevitably doomed to failure. Within this fallen city of all-to-human gods, we have a young boy who forsook his innocence of youth and apparently jumped from the airy balconies.

[I loved the imagery of the boy's death; his fall--his fall from grace--leads to the creation of a demon. I think Fix's references to Milton and Paradise Lost aren't coincidental.]

(show spoiler)

Throughout the series, the atrocities that Castor faces are, by and large, man-made. Every aspect of the world speaks of man's inhumanity to man; even the supernatural beings are, at their core, people. Ghosts, loup-garou, and zombies are people who have been refined by death into something both more and less human, and even the actions of demons are inexorably shaped by the humans who summon them into the mortal plane.

[The reveal about the true nature of demons was stunning; it came as a shock to me, yet was such a natural fit for the world that Carey had built that it had all the satisfaction of a last puzzle piece fitting into place. We have the contrasting paths of Juliet and Mark; Juliet seeks to understand/remember what it is to be human, while Mark strips away all self other than pain and fury.]

(show spoiler)

Through Castor, Carey deconstructs the hero. Throughout, we see a man who is willing to shoulder the responsibilities of others, to throw himself into the fray for friends and strangers. One little oddity stuck out to me: both his mother and brother call him "Felix," so Fix must have bestowed his nickname, with all of its semantic baggage, on himself. To protect and rescue--to fix, in fact--is the role of the hero, yet over and over, Carey has shown us the consequence of choice and the arrogance and unbearable guilt that underlie this apparent selflessness. As one character tells Fix,

You persist in thinking that...the whole world is full of the waste products of other people's mistakes? That your role in life is to clean them up, and to take the thanks for it?

[...and thus the inevitable tragedy.]

(show spoiler)

Castor's tendency to involve himself stems from both his own desire for absolution and an innate arrogance, for why does he believe he has the right, the strength, to make decisions that impact so many? Yet Fix is only one example of this hypocrisy; this duality of saviour and destroyer within the novel.

[Anita first saves the child Fix from a fall to protect the brother of the man she loves, then later pushes him off a bridge to protect her son; his injuries, especially the punctured lung, echo Kevin's, and the words she whispers to Fix as she throws him off--that it will be all right--are the words unsaid when she saved him before. Matty, the literal father figure, can offer grace and forgiveness to his children in God, yet cannot save his own son from sinking into despair. Anita indirectly comments on the ultimate irony of Father Matthew's profession when she finally decides to submit to Kevin:

"I don't deserve any better...look at me, Richie. Look how I'm living. He'll put a roof over our heads. He'll be a father to Mark. Fuck knows, somebody's got to be."

Even Kevin "saves" Anita even as he destroys her, just as Fix, in a different way, "saves" Rafi from the ministrations of Jenna-Jane only to trigger the dissolution of his soul.]

(show spoiler)

Carey's exploration of self-harm is equally complex and multi-layered. Self-harm is itself a paradox; it is a way to act out on one's self-hatred; a way of keeping silence while voicelessly screaming for help, for redemption. It is a form of self-punishment, of hatred and disgust so deep that only disfiguring the vessel can relieve the pressure. Yet while it provides a temporary sense of absolution, it is not constructive, and one quickly becomes addicted to that wire in the blood, that ecstatic moment of release. One of the characters, Mark, speaks to this paradoxical sense of transformation:

"If I could talk, I'd talk. It's the easy choice.
But I can't, so my knife must be my voice...
I take the blade and it just needs one stroke.
It comes out, but changes as it flows.
Water becomes wine. My wound becomes a rose."

Through another character who "[carves] out his indignation on his wrists and forearms", Carey captures how this form of silent self-expression, ostensibly a release of anger against the self, may truly target the world. Self-harm is, at its core, a selfish act, for it is an absolute, egoistical focus on the self even in the annihilation of self. Throughout, Carey provides perspectives and consequences, but neither fetishizes nor condemns.[2] As is typical, Fix is more straightforward and sees the cutting as an ecstatic, sexually-tinged escape, yet his typical lack of subtlety and self-knowledge itself adds another layer to Carey's portrayal. For Fix himself is self-destructive: he goes out of his way to damage his potential relationships before they have a chance to bloom; in his thoughts, he tortures himself with endless slashes to his psyche by going over and over his own guilt without ever thoroughly analysing and altering his behaviour. It is the same vicious cycle of self-hatred and self-destruction, and the scars it leaves are just as deep.

The book is indeed a fast-paced thriller with a satisfying mystery and tight worldbuilding, but also something more. Fix's description of a news archive of past tragedies perfectly captured my emotions:

"And in that typographic ocean, dark shapes moved of their own volition, against the sluggish tides. People hurt and killed each other, or themselves; broke against pavements, were impaled on railings, swallowed razor blades, carved gnomic messages on their own flesh or the flesh of their loved ones. There was blood, and there was pain. It drew me in, until I couldn't see the land any more."

[1] Yep, I like my metaphors blatant.

[2] I think Carey truly sought to understand; in the dedication, he thanks an anonymous "A" for conversations and the basis for the poem.


~~Other links~~

My review of The Devil You Know (Felix Castor #1)

My review of Vicious Circle (Felix Castor #2)

My review of Dead Men's Boots (Felix Castor #3)

My review of The Naming of Beasts (Felix Castor #5)