The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.
Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.
In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.
Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.
Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.
Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.
Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.
While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.
Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory. Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.
The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.
I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.
It has taken me so long to finish the book not because it wasn't good, but because I have only read it in the bath — sometimes at casinos but also sometimes not, otherwise it would have taken me even longer, especially considering the last casino I stayed at only had a shower. My copy is now very water damaged.
Anyway. I had picked One-Eyed Jack for my casino bath reading because it's about the spirit of Las Vegas fighting to keep his city from being annexed by the spirit of Los Angeles, so it seemed topical.
There are actually two spirits (or genii) of Las Vegas: the One-Eyed Jack, who has one normal eye and one magical eye he keeps hidden under an eyepatch; and the Suicide King, otherwise known as Stewart, who seems to have a magical ability to kill himself and then resurrect again. Jackie and Stewart are boyfriends in addition to sharing the job of genius of Las Vegas. This seems like it would break a lot of workplace regulations but it looks like being a magical symbol isn’t a very well-regulated field considering all the other stuff that goes down in this book.
Jackie and Stewart eventually form a coalition with several interesting characters, including two ghosts of different John Henrys, some "media ghosts" of unnamed TV spies, and vampire Elvis (though this vampire Elvis is very different from the vampire Elvis of the Sookie Stackhouse books). The antagonists include Angel (the genius of Los Angeles, in the form of a young ingénue), a character known only as “the assassin,” a Promethean Mage, and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.
I was a bit confused about who precisely all these people were, since I am not much up on my ‘60s TV spies — nor on my Las Vegas history, really, although I do at least know who Bugsy Siegel is. But once I got used to identifying the spies by their descriptors instead of names, it was all easy enough to follow.
The book takes place mostly in 2002, and as is usually the case, I still find it a bit jarring to realize how long ago the mid-2000s were and how much it really was a different era — it makes me feel old — but it’s impossible to miss because stuff in Vegas changes so fast that, even without ever having been there, I know a bunch of the properties mentioned in the book have since shut down and new ones opened; also, Jackie wears black leather cargo pants because he is terribly cool, and it’s become hard to remember that there was a time when cargo pants really were cool and not just a shorthand for sartorial laziness. Other bits of the book take place in 1964, because that’s when all the media ghosts come from. The time travel isn’t flashy; it just sort of happens—there’s enough ghosts in the story already that visiting the ghost of 1964 isn’t that big a deal.
Since this is a spy story I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but suffice to say that, in keeping with the general theme, it, like a game of poker, features long stretches of quietly waiting and thinking about things (I don’t believe poker is ever boring) interspersed with moments of high drama that vastly change the dynamics at the table. (Poor Angel spends the first three-quarters of the book chipping up relentlessly only to spew off her entire stack in one dumb play. Been there done that; it’s awful.) All the disparate threads and meticulously solved riddles finally come together near the end to put a fast-paced and deceptively simple end to the conspiracy.
One of the unifying principles of how magic works in this book is that it relies very heavily on symbolism and stories and beliefs, reminding me a lot of Discworld if the Discworld books were about twelve thousand percent more serious. Genre savviness is important for our heroes to figure out what is going on. Gaming-related symbolism abounds, which is fitting, because gaming-related symbolism abounds in English writing anyway, only this time it’s all looked at a lot more closely than usual.
Like the other Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, this was pretty weird and I think I’d have to read it again to figure out some of the weird stuff I didn’t get the first time around, but I’m probably not going to because I have at least three unread Elizabeth Bear books on my shelf at the moment. I always like her stuff but it tends to end up taking me a lot longer to get through than I think it’s going to.
I recommend it to anyone who likes metafictional genre-savvy stuff. Pairs well with a Lush bath bomb, a nice hotel room, and an adult beverage.
Technically I started Blue Lily, Lily Blue the last time I was up there but I only got a few pages into it. But this time I splonked down on the porch and pretty much ripped through the whole thing. It was pretty glorious.
In this one, Blue’s mother has disappeared to go look for Blue’s father underground. Blue and the Raven Boys start sort of looking for Blue’s mother, but also looking for some entities known only as the three sleepers. One of them is the king they’re looking for, Owen Glendower. They’ve been warned that one of the sleepers must be woken and another one must not be woken; apparently, there’s no word on the third.
Of course, it’s the third one they end up actually waking first; this is Owen Glendower’s awesome and thoroughly batty witch daughter, Gwenllian. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that. Irish I’m starting to get a hold of but Welsh is still quite beyond me.) This is possibly not even the weirdest thing going on, even though Gwenllian speaks in riddles and songs and wears multiple dresses at a time and has giant curly hair that she keeps things in and generally sounds like a cartoon character drawn up by a disgruntled Disney animator on acid. I heart her.
We meet more bad guys, including the Gray Man’s insufferable former employer, Colin Greenmantle, and his similarly insufferable wife, Piper, who—in a fun twist that I appreciated more than words can say—Colin seems to believe is his trophy wife but who actually knows more about creepy magic shit than he does and has a lot more experience dealing with it and, consequently, can command more power and get up to more nefarious things that Colin doesn’t quite understand. It’s enormously satisfying.
In other news, Gansey and Blue start secretly sort-of dating; Adam is dealing with how to interpret invasive communications from Cabeswater, with help from Persephone; Ronan is doing sketchy dream stuff at the Barns that no one seems to quite understand and that isn’t working anyway; Noah is still dead but having an increasingly bad time of it; and Gansey’s British friend Malory has found a mysterious tapestry featuring three bloody-handed ladies who all look like Blue.
Most of the magical action in this book focuses not on Cabeswater but in a cave on the property of a man named Jesse Dittley, a large farmer who speaks in all caps and only eats Spaghetti-Os. The cave carries a curse on it that results in a Dittley dying in it every couple of decades or so, otherwise the walls of the farmhouse bleed and all that other poltergeist stuff. There are actually multiple caves because there’s also one for the sleeper who must not be woken (guess what happens to that one at the end of the book), but it’s complicated figuring out where they are and how they’re all connected, because magic.
We also meet an amusing Aglionby student named Henry who does not seem very important at first, just very friendly and cheerful with big hair. He drives an electric car. He will be important later.
I’m getting some of the plotlines confused in my memory because this book does quite a large amount of setting up things that are going to explode spectacularly in the next book and I don’t always remember where one book ends and the other one begins, with the exception of the bit with the sleeper who must not be woken. But it doesn’t have that lack of tension that some books that are all setup have. Things are moving along and weaving together in complicated ways that all will probably make sense eventually and everyone is having lots of feelings and there’s some lovely register-switching going on depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Colin Greenmantle has a glib, dismissive, affectedly witty inner voice that’s simultaneously as insufferable as he is and genuinely funny to read. It’s almost painfully modern in the context of all the mythological timeless stuff going on in the rest of the series, even though it’s reminiscent of writing styles that I love when they’re on the Internet, but it does an extremely good job of characterizing Colin as a superficial type who doesn’t really understand what it is that he’s messing with. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is filled with lush, colorful prose interrupted by periodic bouts of swearing, usually from Ronan.
Ronan, by the way, is an underappreciated comic genius. Probably nobody would ever tell him that since he is angry and powerful and all dangerous and stuff, with his pet dream raven and his biker jacket and his fighty attitude and his adorable crush on Adam, but his trolling abilities are top-notch (especially regarding deployment of the murder squash song) and he can do wordplay in both English and Latin. Also, Chainsaw might be my favorite character in the whole series.
The book does end on a massive uh-oh, with a bunch of people dead and bunch of other people who were previously either lost or dead being recovered, so I can understand why fans of the series were very upset about having to wait for the next book to come out. It’s the sort of thing that’s why I waited so long to read this book in the first place, and I am glad I did, because it meant I got to jump right into The Raven King.
One thing that is particularly fun in this short story collection is that they are all connected: They all take place in the same universe—indeed, the same Brooklyn—as Half-Resurrection Blues, and feature a lot of the same characters. A bunch of the stories are from Carlos’ point of view; others are from the POV of other supernatural-affiliated characters, most of whom know Carlos and get all mixed up in his plans of trying to sabotage whatever nasty power-grubbing nonsense the Council of the Dead is up to.
While the Council gets up to quite a bit of nasty nonsense, including an attempted hostile takeover of a neighborhood in Manhattan that had been outside of its jurisdiction, not all the stories in the collection involve the CoD. Some involve various other malevolent ghosts, sorcery-wielding miscreants, and other weird shit. There’s a great one about creepy possessed vintage porcelain dolls, although Carlos has to go and continually be such a dude and keeps referring to them as American Girl dolls even though they clearly can’t be. There is also one about the ghost of a giant woolly mammoth, and that’s possibly the least weird story in there.
There’s a good balance of creepy and funny in this selection, with pretty much all of the stories being creepy and some of them being funnier than others depending on who’s in them: Any time Carlos’ ghost cop partner Riley shows up trying to be macho it’s going to be goofy sort of funny; whereas CiCi’s stories have a warmer, more subtle sort of humor, in an indulgent-grandma kind of way. (Like the old people IMing bit, which is… old people IMing. IT’S ADORABLE.) Carlos on the occasions when he’s being a total dork continues to be the most fun, in my opinion.
Unrelated to the content, but a thing which I nevertheless have opinions about: This book is published by Crossed Genres, a funky small press here in MA, which is awesome. They also decided to use straight quotes instead of smart quotes for the whole book and really compressed ellipses, which is less awesome. I feel bad bagging on a small press for things like this but I really hate straight quotes in print.
ANYWAY. Do you like ghosts? This book has all the ghosts. Ghost elephants. Ghost bureaucrats. Ghost shit-stirring Black magicians from the 1800s (I think 1800s?). A ghost bus driver with a ghost bus. This book is only like 150 pages but it’s got a whole shadow universe of New York in it full of weirdo ghosts doing weirdo ghost things, and it’s great.
Well, I feel like I have a lot of things to say about Half-Resurrection Blues, but chances are good I’ll forget to say some of them, or possibly I will not say them as fully as they are in my head. Sometimes you get a book where there’s just a lot going on. (Sometimes this is because it’s 1500 pages, but sometimes it’s not.)
Starting with the basics: Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel in the Bone Street Rumba “spectral noir” or “ghost noir” urban fantasy series by Daniel José Older, who I’ve seen on a bunch of panels at Readercon and Arisia, where he was always a kickass panelist. He has opinions on italicizing Spanish that I always think about whenever we have clients who are like “We’re trying to target a Hispanic market, also, italicize any term in Spanish.” He also answers all my bullshit tweets which is (a) good author marketing branding practice stuff and (b) a sign that his fanbase isn’t big enough, so go buy his book. He was also nice enough to sign my copy at Arisia so nyah nyah.
We’ll get to the ugly little fucker on the exercise bike in a bit.
So “ghost noir” turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin: It’s noir, all lyric description of gritty city streets (in this case, Brooklyn) and characters smoking a lot and doing shots because they’re in such a manly bad mood and thinking about sex and having tragic buried backstories and stuff. It’s also got ghosts. Our gruff damaged protagonist is a “half-resurrected” (meaning he died but has mysteriously come mostway back to life, no one knows how) special agent for the Council of the Dead. His name is Carlos Delacruz and he figures he’s Puerto Rican and he doesn’t know anything of his former life. Mostly he skulks around keeping shit-stirring ghosts in line and drinking rum with some of his ghost agent bros and making fun of hipsters in his inner monologue and reading, which sounds like a pretty good life for a noir protagonist. But then the plot shows up in the form of another half-resurrected guy—the first one Carlos has ever seen—who wants to bring a bunch of college bros into the Underworld, and Carlos has to kill him, and then everything gets complicated. Not least because Carlos immediately develops a ginormous crush on a photograph of the now-dead half-resurrected guy’s sister, except that he’s just killed her brother, so you can imagine how well that’s going to go.
The other immediate problem is the sudden infestation of a bunch of soul-tearingly irritating (literally) ugly little demon things called ngks, which apparently look like tiny grinning toads riding tiny stationary bikes. Somehow they are connected to whatever terrible plan involved the college bros, and Carlos and his ghost cop buddies have to set about trying to figure out and dismantle an increasingly labyrinthine situation set up by some ancient weirdo called Sarco that manages to involve (and by involve I mean screw over) pretty much everyone we’re introduced to in the entire book, as is right and proper noir/hardboiled plotting. I don’t want to talk more about the plot because spoilers.
Possibly my favorite thing about this book is the voice. It’s a first-person POV, as is also only right and proper, and man, does Carlos have certain aspects of sounding like Noir-y Protagonist Man down pat. He swears a lot and he bounces back and forth between the lyrical descriptive thing and the blunt, matter-of-fact hardboiled thing accompanied by cynical inner monologue about everybody. But while Carlos’ voice and characterization is unapologetically working within a certain tradition, he doesn’t sound like a Philip Marlowe ripoff. He’s more modern and more Puerto Rican, obviously, and the Brooklyn he moves in is a modern Brooklyn, full of communities of color getting slowly edged out by annoying white hipsters and rich people, which is precisely what’s happening in Brooklyn, from all reports. I’m wildly unqualified to have any opinions on the authenticity of the use of Spanish in this book because obviously the author is actually Hispanic and I am an Irish-American living in a mostly white section of Boston, but from some recent reports of People Having Opinions About Spanish In Fiction, I am going to say that it’s really not that difficult to read, guys, even if you don’t speak Spanish. I did not even have to use the Google machine once. Stylistically I think it lends a sense of place and a sense of specificity— you don’t feel like you’re in Anycity USA, in the I Guess People Live Here Quarter where people speak Ninth Grade Textbook English—but whether it’s accurate is up to people who have been to Brooklyn more than twice. The language overall is very playful and colloquial and makes you want to read it all out loud just for the fun of it.
Additionally, but no less importantly than any of the stuff to do with race, class, or identity, is that this book is funny. Dry cynical wisecracking is a time-honored part of noir, obviously, but the humor in this book runs much goofier than that sometimes, because why not. Carlos’ super surly noir man persona not infrequently gives way to a sort of flaily haplessness when either shit gets truly bizarre (see: demons on tiny bikes) or when he’s attempting to put together sentences about Sasha, our maybe-femme-fatale love-interest lady. There are also a handful of memorable puns, the aforementioned ridiculous ngk bikes (which are never really explained), and a ghost that shows up and says “Schmloooo” a lot during a very important and suspenseful following-people scene, apparently just to ruin the atmosphere. It could easily have not worked, but it does.
My biggest criticism of the book: It is pretty dudely. There are a handful of pretty cool but still pretty minor female characters, a secondary character who is a female house ghost, and Sasha. And I like Sasha, and I actually like most of the other female characters and think they all should totally get more page time in the sequel. Apparently the Council of the Dead and all its ghost cops have a serious gender imbalance in their line of work, though. Overall, though, considering the long history of surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny in the noir genre, Half-Resurrection Blues makes an excellent refuge for people who love gritty noiry mystery shit but are over the surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny.
Highly recommended for: Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler novel and been like “This would be perfect with a little less raging racism and sexism, and maybe some ghosts.” Fans of Castle who are always disappointed at the end of the Nerd Episodes when the vampires/zombies/ghosts/Victorian time travelers turn out not to be real. People who like urban fantasy but are bored of the same old Laurell K. Hamilton knockoff shit. Anyone who really appreciates good use of style and language in genre fiction.