Monday, January 9, 2012

City of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore

I’m kind of torn about this one.  I mean, I thought it was all right, it kept me entertained enough on the train ride to work.  But I feel as if I could have really liked it, and simultaneously I feel like I did really like it, when it was the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey.  Perhaps it’s my fault for reading books of such close genre affiliation and tone so closely back to back.  Or maybe I’ve just OD’d on urban fantasy novels at the moment.  Permit me to explain.

This book examines one Joe Sunday, who’s an enforcer for a gangster in Los Angeles.  So he’s a big thug type guy, he goes around taking care of problems and/or people that his boss tells him to deal with.  Now I’m not necessarily against having a morally dubious protagonist, in fact I’m fairly willing to overlook this.  But Sunday doesn’t really seem to have any sort of inner life which would lead me to root for him exactly.  He doesn’t live by some sort of messed-up Bushido code, his boss didn’t save his life and now he swallows his pride and does the dirty work out of obligation, he’s not stuck in some situation and is now bound to a life of crime, or so on.  He gets pretty well paid and he doesn’t seem to have any particular moral values so even though he could apparently quit any time he doesn’t.

Although maybe that would have been a good idea because on this particular occasion his boss wants some sort of gemstone stolen from an old Italian guy, and Joe’s partner gets killed, and it turns out that the boss actually killed this Italian back in the 1960s and he was old even then, and the stone has magical powers.  Then the Italian guy kills Joe too, but uses the stone to bring him back as a zombie or revenant or something to that effect, but Joe gets the stone, then loses it, and finds out that without it he loses control of himself and eats people’s hearts, and they also turn into zombies and he has to destroy them.

Like every novel of this kind once Joe’s down the rabbit hole he ends up finding all the modern-day cabal of magic practitioners that operate in this day and age, plus the usual complement of monsters, demons, hangers-on, and so forth.  This stone is a real big deal, so he ends up dealing with a bunch of people who want it for one reason or another, and some of them try to help Joe out, others try to cut deals with him, others hunt down his associates like dogs.

There were some things that I did really like about this book.  It had some really engaging action sequences, which I appreciate in a story of this type, and some of the characters were also well developed.  I especially liked Gabriela, who is a former sociology major who has a talent for witchcraft and runs a halfway house for street monsters.  She’s funny enough, but her low-tech approach to magic is pretty inspired.  For instance she has T-shirts that say things like “You can’t see me” or “I am a paramedic”, which actually work on normal people.  She implies that she could do a lot more flashy type stuff but that this is easier.

My real beefs with this book are basically outside the actual story on the page.  If you’re creating a work where the lead character is a bad guy, then there are a couple of things that you can do in order to pad the blow a little or make it work anyway.  Blackmoore didn’t do some of them and made some of the others a little obvious in my opinion.

For instance, you can give the main character some redeeming characteristics, like he’s got some family that he cares about or a cause he believes in or he’s nice to his cat or something like that.  In this case, Sunday doesn’t have any stuff like this at all, he’s a complete mercenary, gets into a fistfight with his only close friend, if he has any family he doesn’t mention them, and so on.   So this is something of a missed opportunity.  He also doesn’t have some of the other sort of virtues that might make you overlook his bad qualities; he’s not really that attractive or charming, and he’s not really smart either, he’s always having things explained to him.  So I think really that the author dropped the ball by making Joe too successfully lowlife and forgetting that you have to actually want to support this guy.

Something else you could do is make the bad guys have a really evil plot that you want them to fail at.  This may be the issue where the narrative failed for me in the biggest way.  Now, the stone may be able to provide immortality if you approach it right, and at the least it’s pretty magical, so it makes sense that all these magicians want to get their hands on it.  But what they are going to do after that point isn’t entirely clear.  The Italian, for instance, wants to get immortality, but he’s already been able to use magic to live a really long time and is essentially indestructible already.  If he gets the stone he’s probably just going to keep doing the same thing he’s been doing already, he’s not going to take over the world.  The same is true for most of the rest of the people who want it.

Joe wants to retrieve the stone because otherwise he is compelled to eat people (and because he may die if someone else uses it), and while I support his decision to try and avoid random killing, he’s not filled with horror and remorse about it like many people in this situation might be.  In fact he seems to consider it something of an inconvenience more than anything, like getting rid of the bodies is such a pain in his ass.  Which I guess it would be, I’ve never tried to stuff an undead hooker into an industrial rock crusher, it’s probably hard on your shoes.  But the point is that Joe’s also not going to use the stone for any good purpose, he’s going to use it for his personal convenience.  So what are the stakes exactly?  Why should I care that Joe gets it rather than one of the other people looking for it?  I want Gabriela to get it, she wants to help all the junkie vampires out.  It’s bad for your narrative if the reader is indifferent to the protagonist’s horrible death.  And even if he does prevail, it’s not going to make a lot of difference to anyone except him.  These low stakes make it hard to root for a bad guy.

One other trick you can do which is used here is to make the bad guys really bad so that your bad protagonist looks better in comparison.  I think some of the other magicians are inexplicably super evil to try and make Joe look better, but it didn’t really work for me because it actually goes too far to be believable even in this universe.  One of them is even said to be a former Nazi.  And while the only thing worse than a Nazi is a Nazi occultist, he’s really given that trait only so you can feel OK about Joe killing him.  I mean, that’s not a part of his character that he has those views necessarily; it’s just a shorthand label so you know this guy’s a bad guy and you should root against him.  The same thing is true of the Italian guy, who everyone is inexplicably making deals with although he inevitably betrays them.  No one would ever trust this guy, since he’s screwed over literally everyone he’s ever met or worked with.  If you’re shooting for immortality then you have to assume that having this reputation is not going to be useful to you.

There are also some illustrations in the book by Sean Phillips, whose work I like, but if you’d told me that these particular drawings were drafts for Sleeper I would have not questioned it.  He’s not exactly breaking out some new character designs here.  I also didn’t really see it adding anything to the story.  Maybe they’re friends?  I’m not actually sure and I don’t care enough to go find out.

To sum up – pretty well written and reasonable enough for what it was, but big metatextual issues prevent me from really recommending it, and I’m not really interested reading the sequel which is heavily suggested.  Really big fans of this genre might appreciate it more than I did, though, and I didn’t hate it, so take that as you will.

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