Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Saturday Review: Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore

Been sitting on this review a while, but as the sequel to this is due out soon, I figured I ought to get around to writing it. I've been sitting on it because while I liked the book a lot, overall, especially the world-building that goes on in the first book of any series, and the novel approach to the mythology the author is utilizing (both of which I will address in a minute), I had a problem with the ending ... and I'm not sure exactly why.

But I'll get to that.

First, the world-building. This is a novel where, if the characters and the places hadn't been rattling around in the author's brain for a long, long time, it certainly felt that way. This was a cast of characters with history, much of it broken, and if the reader doesn't know all of it to start - or even by the end - it doesn't matter because you can still feel the weight of that history bearing down on them, some more than others. It's almost an in media res (if I may channel my high school English classes) set up, save for the initial event that gets the plot rolling. But there's a lot going on with these people (well, most are people, a few are... other things), and it gives them an added depth that not every initial novel manages. The rules are quickly laid out, the roles defined, and more importantly a layer of grime and dirt is smeared over everything, letting you know that not only is the world a lived-in one, but that's it's often not a nice one.

Part of that hinges on the depth to the mythology that's being plumbed here. I will not claim to read a lot of urban fantasy, as that genre's gotten way too big for me to catch up with (and I rarely delve into the side alleys of romance and the other related areas), but the authors I stick with are the ones that can do something new and different with the established mythos. (One can only take so many fairies who are clearly borrowed out of Tolkien (and mistaken for elves), Shakespeare, or Barre.) From the cold-opening, readers are treated to a different pantheon, and it's quickly made clear that there are multiple frameworks at play in this world. Not only does this make a nice change of pace to be dealing with Mayan deities and Vodou loa, but it also opens up the possibilities for future novels in the series. You get the early feeling that there isn't anything that's not on the table. Moreover, the different gods/spirits are given distinctly different feels. This isn't just a cut and paste approach to the various mythologies; Blackmoore's done his homework, or at least doing a good impression of it.

Which brings me to the only problem I had with this: the ending. It wasn't quite as satisfying as I had hopes for, in part because by the end it's clear that one aspect of the plot was little more than a MacGuffin to set up another aspect. And that second aspect doesn't quite deliver, in some ways reading mostly as a set-up for future novels. Which I'm fine with a first book doing, so long as something in the first book is properly resolved. Dead Things doesn't quite do that, and worse for me was that it felt like to get there, the lead had to do something rather... well, stupid. With plenty of other characters telling him it was not only stupid, but unnecessary. Granted, there's likely not a one of us who hasn't done something in our own lives with those same parameters, and there are explanatory circumstances so it's not as if he's handed an idiot ball, but, still... it didn't feel quite right, and worse, seemed to shut the door on one of the more interesting side players we'd been introduced to.

Bottom line is, I really liked it, up until the last few chapters, and those weren't enough to deter me from the next book (which, as I mentioned, is either already out or out soon). There's a lot of promise in the premise, and I want to see what Blackmoore does with it.

I will say that, even though it fits in the UF genre (or however the heck you want to categorize that), it is a lot grimmer, a lot darker, and a lot grittier than other series. It reminded me some of Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim books, only less humorous (which is saying something). Blackmoore reads like a cross between Jim Butcher and Andrew Vachss, and that may not be to everyone's taste. It is to mine, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next book goes.