Two Sinister Characters (being where Joe reviews novels DEAD HARVEST and CITY OF THE LOST)
So, as more than a couple of people who come to (or who would feasibly come to) my little abode here know, I had something of a life-changing experience around September of last year that was easily on par to the moment a friend of mine proposed I participate in something called a “NaNoWriMo”. That experience also had a pretty weird name, some whatchamacalit called a “Bouchercon” and if the first funny-named-thing was what lit the initial writing spark, the second funny-named-thing is what lit the fire under my ass. It seems like I can’t have a decent conversation about anything writing or fiction-oriented without invoking Bouchercon 2011 and it’s with no small amount of gratitude that my friends and family haven’t deigned to turn it into a drinking game. (Rules: Take a shot every time Joe says “BCon”, “Bouchercon”, or “that convention I went to last year”. If you don’t have alcohol poisoning after five minutes, you’re doing it wrong.)
The best part of it, without a doubt, was getting to meet a whole slew of people who I’m proud to claim some sort of tribal or clan-like relation. (My only question on that matter is, which is it? One gets to wear loincloths, the other gets to wear kilts – I’m open to whichever, really.) I vividly remember being as giddy as a schoolgirl – though not as well-dressed – at the prospect of meeting them and I got to experience that feeling all over again (and again, sans plaid skirt and knee socks) when I got to read not one, but two fantastic novels, both being debut novels, namely DEAD HARVEST by Chris F. Holm and CITY OF THE LOST by Stephen Blackmoore. The best part of it? Being able to squeal and point at the covers and yell that I know, to some degree, the person who wrote it. I chose not to go ahead and review one before the other, waiting instead to have both books read. I’m weird like that.
Anyhoo. Um, yeah. Enough background, let’s get in with the reviews.
DEAD HARVEST was the most recent of the two to have been read, being the story of one Sam Thornton, a man doomed to an existence of having to collect the souls of the damned as punishment for his own wrongdoings in life. Things get hairy for ol’ Sammy when he soon discovers that the soul of his most recent mark, Kate, has a certain quality that none of the others’ did. See, thing is, she’s innocent. (OR IS SHE? Cue dramatic reverb.) Thus sparks a wild-as-hell race through New York to not only keep Kate from being Collected by the superbly scary Bishop or any number of demons and angels out for blood, but to find out who, if anybody, framed Kate before it becomes an all-out war between the equally sinister forces of Heaven and Hell. Needless to say, Sam’s got his work cut out for him.
Maybe I’m getting cynical in my old age, but the concept of a war between Heaven and Hell just doesn’t do much for me these days. It’s gotta be cool, slick, and still appropriately OHSHITOHSHITOHSHIT for me to feel satisfied by the idea, and I’ve got to say, Chris F. Holm hit the nail on the head with this one. (With a hammer. Probably Mjolnir.) When I met Chris, he was slyly tight-lipped about any details regarding the book, which helped a lot, because I was thrust headlong into a world familiar enough to be comfortable, but also big and scary enough to be, well, big and scary. At the beginning of the book, you get the sense that there’s not a whole lot for Sam to be worried about. I mean, it’s not like he’s going to die, after all. Besides, if he bites it, all he’s got to do is just jump into a new body, right? Well, we’re reminded pretty quickly that there are a lot scarier things in the world than dying and by about a fourth of the way through the book, we have a good sense that Sam really is an underdog in the whole afterlife gig. Sure he can tear your soul out and jump from body to body, but that comes with a price – taking an innocent soul as either a Collection or a vessel means that it chips away at his morality and humanity. In this, and in seeing his antagonist, Bishop, the reader gets to see just how delicate a balance Sam is playing at. Plus, the idea that if he gets caught, he’s getting really and truly tormented for all eternity, means that he’s not the invulnerable badass one expects he is. (He does still get badass points for going toe to toe with some angry demons and angels and standing his ground.) By the time we get to the end, things are at pressure cooker levels and the finale is the explosion we’ve all been waiting for. Fantastic stuff all around. For those who are a little too into their old-fashioned pulpnoir to feel entirely comfortable wading into urban fantasy, step up to the plate and get ready for a fastball right in the jumblies.
Pros: Great, fallible protagonist; high stakes; demons
Cons: Took me a second to remember Sam’s motivation
If DEAD HARVEST was the slick, refined side of the urban fantasy coin, CITY OF THE LOST is the one that’s been scratched up and tends to land face-up right before the bullets start flying. (Also, I just now noticed the contrast between the two covers. Whoo!) While I have yet to actually have the pleasure of meeting Stephen Blackmoore in person, his writing is something I’ve had plenty of time to ogle over for being mean, gritty, and no-holds-barred. It only stands to reason that his debut novel is every bit as gnarly as his short fiction.
Joe Sunday – strange name, serious business. An enforcer based out of Los Angeles, Sunday’s world is turned upside down when, during drinks with a buddy, said buddy becomes less interested in the booze and more interested in the brains. Sunday’s brains, that is. Yeah, that’s right. Consider the zombie card played. When Sunday starts nosing around into the last job Julio (the brain-eating buddy) was pulling, he finds himself up against a guy with a nasty little secret: a stone that can great immortality as well as turn an unsuspecting sap into a zombie. I’ll let you guess who the unsuspecting sap is. Suddenly dead and with the ability to regenerate at an amazing rate, you’d think Sunday’s life would be at least a little simpler. Problem is, after a while, he starts to go from roguish to Romero and starts hungering for the hearts of the living. Yeah, these zombies eat hearts – and it’s awesome. With some help from a boner-bearing bartender from the banks of – okay, he’s a demon! I can’t think of a synonym that starts with B – and a young witch with a humanitarian (vampiretarian?) streak, he learns that the only way to keep from being all zombie all the time is to get that stone back for himself. He’ll just have to take down a guy with about 700 years of experience on him to do it.
Also, Nazis. ‘Nuff Said!
Coming from a background of Charlie Huston and Richard Kadrey, I was immediately hooked on how fast-paced and brutal CITY OF THE LOST was. Also, having never seen a zombie protagonist before, I was fascinated by the prospect of Sunday having to feed to survive. I’m not talking vampire feeding either, where it’s “Oh no, I have to drink or I can’t get out of bed,” it’s “I have to eat hearts before I turn into a walking corpse and go 28 Days Later on your ass.” The fact we’re always pulled away from the action right as Sunday goes zombie is a masterful use of storytelling on Blackmoore’s part. The grisliest stuff comes from the reader having to guess just what happened like Sunday does whenever he comes to. The best part of this, similar to Sam’s predicament in DEAD HARVEST, is that while you would expect some Wolverine-scale level of invulnerability from an already-dead protagonist (not to mention the healing factor), Sunday’s got a serious limitation in that he’s got to beat the clock – and soon, before any hope of being somewhat normal goes out the window and into the street – a street that just so happens to be filled with assholes street racing. (Get it? Because they’re driving and his hope would get run over and hahahaI’ll shut up now.)
Again, fantastic stuff and one hell of a teaser ending, wherein I expect to see a lot more of Sunday in the future, but if I don’t, I’ll catch myself wondering what he’s up to every time I look out into the sunset and catch a whiff of brains on the wind.
Pros: Zombies, hitmen, mafia bosses
Cons: While I worry about Sunday, I am a lot less worried about him coming out alright or not – until the final showdown, of course.
If NaNo was the spark and BCon was the fire, not only knowing the people who wrote this books but actually walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing them on the shelf is the fart that sends me rocketing skyward as my pants slough off in burning tatters as I fly screaming towards the western sun. Guys, you’ve done great work. I just hope hope hope that one day, I’ll be able to see my own book lodged in a bookstore shelf along with yours one day.