"Not the sky falling, but the ground opening up under our feet."
The Naming of Beasts (Felix Castor #5)
by Mike Carey
In the Felix Castor books, the gritty, jaded irony of the best of noir/hardboiled meets the precarious uncertainty of a fantastically imaginative apocalyptic world. Carey's prose is vivid, compelling, and compulsively readable, and Fix Castor manages to be sympathetic despite his many flaws. The Castor books portray a self-destructive protagonist submerged by his guilt, isolation, and loneliness, struggling to stay afloat in an uneasy sea of moral greys. Carey has a gift for interweaving human conflict and supernatural elements into a seamless whole. In every book, up to this point, the root of the conflict has been man's inhumanity to man. Each book has started with an apparently trivial case which leads Castor deeper and deeper into a poisonous web of conspiracy amongst privileged and powerful. All of the conflicts, in the end, come down to human sins and human actions. In Fix's world, humans are the root of all evil.
Throughout the series, Fix has been tormented by guilt over his involvement in the fate of Rafi, his old college friend. Several years before, Castor, desperate to rescue Rafi from a botched demon summoning, accidentally bound his friend's soul to the demon Asmodeus. Since that time, Rafi has been half-mad, locked away to prevent the demon who possesses him from wreaking havoc upon the world. In The Naming of Beasts, Asmodeus puts his own plans into action and the plot that has been simmering for the last four books finally explodes into the forefront. For me, this meant that the driving force of the series--the tragedy of human inhumanity--was strangely absent from The Naming of Beasts. Most of the conflict comes from the machinations of the demon Asmodeus, and while Jenna-Jane Mullbridge, the other main antagonist/schemer, is technically human, she is essentially a straightforward symbol of the Evils of Science. While the plot is action-filled and fast-paced, it doesn't really have the corkscrew-twisty whodunit element that I found so compelling in the earlier books.
It also has so many plotholes that I could use it for straining pasta.(show spoiler)
Part of my issue was that I was utterly unable to sympathize with most of the characters and their troubles. Fix's desperate mission throughout the plot--to disentangle Asmo and Rafi while keeping Rafi alive--struck absolutely no sympathetic chord in me. I've always considered Rafi an arrogant, weak-willed, selfish sociopath, a user of others who deserves to reap precisely what he has sowed. Personally, I've thought all along that Rafi deserves to die for what he has done and the tragedy he has brought into so many other lives. Much of my feelings are carried over to Pen, Rafi's whining girlfriend and Fix's unrequited love interest. Pen is always ready to blame everyone else for Rafi's actions, to place the consequences of Rafi's choices on everyone else's shoulders, to sacrifice anyone else for her precious lover's comfort. The demon-haunted Rafi is, in short, the perfect abuser and Pen the ideal enabler, both always willing to heap guilt and inconvenience and danger on everyone else to get what they want.
I think it comes down to a moral quandry of endless fascination to philosophers. I don't tend to have much difficulty with these sorts of ethical questions. My viewpoint: find the most culpable person and let 'em have it. One reason why I'm endlessly captivated by hardboiled/noir is that this perspective almost unerringly places me (at least in principle) on the antagonists' side. In Castor's case, I was incredulous at Castor's unquestioning decision to thwart those planning to kill Rafi/Asmodeus. He is willing to sacrifice any principle, to encounter any danger, to risk all--including countless other lives put at risk by a demon on the loose-- to save his friend. I just kept wondering why he bothered. Even his more generally philanthropic actions are phrased as guilt over Rafi's predicament:
"If you save some bunch of people you don't really know and don't really care about, is that going to make you feel any better about letting Asmodeus get free and kill somebody you did care about? Because that's what this is about, isn't it? The redemption train. You're standing on the footplate and sounding the whistle, Castor."
Science fiction and fantasy provide wonderful opportunities to twist reality just enough to put readers into a situation where their prejudices and preconceptions no longer apply and they can re-confront the basis for their beliefs. I think that's what Carey was trying to do with Juliet: we all know abusive men are terrible, but what if the abuser is a woman? What if the abuser isn't even human? What if she's the prototypical demon lover? What then? For me, however, it's still a black-and-white issue of domestic abuse, so Juliet's foray into sofa-throwing put a real dent in my sympathy for her as a character. While I was disgusted by Juliet the abuser, her attempts to define and quantify love and relationships were illuminating:
"Where does faithful come into the equation? It's just a word you use to hobble someone you love. To tie them to you. It's a weapon the weak use against the strong."
Carey does his best to paint her as a sympathetic character bewildered by her own loss of control, yet resigned to the darkness in her nature:
"There are limits to how far you can change yourself. I've come to the end of an arc, Castor, and I'm swinging back."
There were still plenty of aspects of the story that I loved. Much of the plot centres around the importance of names, and I always find that idea fascinating. Castor continues to struggle with the changes in his world and his own role in it. At one point, he attempts to explain his perspective:
"It's just a matter of time," I said. "Living versus dead? Sooner or later, we all defect to the other side."
Rosie, the elderly but still bawdy ghost, makes another enjoyable appearance, and at several points, Castor descends into Cockney rhyming slang, which warmed the cockles of my little Amurrrican heart. Despite my general distaste for woo-woo-evils-of-science-style plots, I was captivated by the vivid, gut-wrenching descriptions of Jenna-Jane's laboratory, where the dead men truly and terrifyingly "lose their bones." The climax, too, is positively pulse-racing; towards the end, I found myself hyperventilating (in traditional Castor style, come to think of it), with my hand convulsively clutching my jaw. Carey also manages to insert a few truly brilliant quotes into the story; for example:
"People only want as much history as they can easily carry around."
This might be the way the world ends, and I may have been sneaking Eliot quotes into every Castor review I've written, but I'm going to resist temptation, no matter how depressingly apt one particular quote may be. To me, it felt as though the book had drifted away from the soul of the series: the strident cry against man's inhumanity to man, the acute, unblinking stare into human atrocity, the depiction of human folly and weakness--all have all been replaced by the simple, straightforward, distant evil of a coldblooded demon. There were plenty of bright moments and characteristic Carey wit, but I'm still sad that this beautiful chiaroscuro ends with such a feeble whimper. While I'm not thrilled with this ending to the tale, I have loved every other minute of Castor's powerful, imaginative, gripping series. If you're in the mood for gorgeously gritty noir, please give the series a try--the first book is The Devil You Know.
 The basic setup: an unstoppable train is rocketing towards a fork in the track. It's headed towards the left, where several builders are at work and will surely die if the train comes their way. You have the power to switch the train to the other track, but there's someone on that side as well. How many people need to be on the left side before you're willing to cause the death of the person on the right?
I also thought about titling my review "A False Note," but it's just not fair on the series to end on a bad pun.