Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Keeping

Hey folks, before I get started talking about other things, I just wanted to throw a quick plug out there for another blog. I know a bunch of you out there like storytelling and old things. Well, so does this guy, Tim DeForest. He has a great passion for how old stories, especially in the form of old comic books and the radio, and a fascination with how the medium affects it. His love for old stories is so great, he's managed to get two books published on the subject. So, anyway, here's a link to his blog. Who knows? You might discover some old comic book or radio series of interest.

Now that we've got that shameless bit of advertising out of the way, onto the show.

So, a while back I'd gotten a small collection of Urban Fantasy Noir short stories, largely because it contained a Dresden Files short story by author Jim Butcher. Well, the book contained another story, by one Simon R. Green, set in another fictional fantasy noir setting that caught my interest. I ended up sending the short story collection to my brother to have him read it, to see what he thought.

He read it, bought pretty much the entire Nightside series by Simon R. Green, shipped it to me, and asked me to write a review of it. I've read the first three books, and I figured, what better way to break up two blogs about robots than with a little magic?

So the books follow the exploits of John Taylor, a Private Investigator who specializes in the Nightside, the deep, dark, netherworld underbelly of London, where it is literally always 3 AM and where anything goes (and usually does). Taylor has a very special gift; if something is in the Nightside, he can find it. Now, I don't just mean things like lost keys or that missing statue. If you lost your memory in the Nightside, he can find it. If someone points a gun at him, he can find its bullets (usually, it turns out they were in his hand). If he really wants you dead, he can find your death and bring it to you.

As you can probably guess, this guy doesn't carry a gun; he never felt the need.

Of course, the stories wouldn't be all that interesting if some sort of god of finding things just went, "Shazam, I found your missing daughter" or whatever, so there is a tradeoff. Using this gift of his makes John Taylor very noticeable by the magical and spiritual beings in the Nightside. And it turns out that being one of the most badass detectives in the Nightside gets you a lot of enemies, whether it's the mysterious faceless beings known as the Harrowing, who want him dead for unknown reasons, or whether it's a warring set of angels, each who want him to find a mystical artifact for their own ends. So he uses his gift sparingly when he can, and tries to get by on old fashioned detective work, and through the use of his nigh weaponized reputation.

I'm going to warn you folks, don't go into these books expecting "Harry Potter" fantasy. Exceedingly dark, unpleasant things have a tendency to happen to characters in these books. One character in the third novel was a would-be pop star whose managers had her turned into a life sucking demon of illicit sex. People get shot, stabbed, disembowled, eaten, torn apart, rebuilt, infested with giant cockroach larvae, turned into a pillar of salt and all other manners of terrible fates. And that's not even counting Dead Boy (who is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin). Gods and devils appear, and make their opinions known. So yeah, expect Nightmare Fuel.

The stories are written in that first-person, hardboiled style that we've come to expect from detective novels. Unlike, say, the Dresden Files, these rely a lot less on straight up humor (although they have their moments: "There are any number of magical creatures, mostly female, whose singing can bring about horror and death. Sirens, undines, banshees, Bananarama tribute bands..."). Instead, it focuses more on the weirdness of the setting (carnivorous limousines, anyone?) and the darkness of the characters. And yes, in the grand tradition of the pulp detective novel, the characters are very dark: Suzie Shooter (AKA Shotgun Suzie AKA Oh Christ, it's her, run!), Razor Eddie (Punk God of the Straight Razor), and Dead Boy ("He wanted to know what it was like, being dead, so I told him.") are perhaps three of the closest things John Taylor has to friends, and they've all tried to kill him at different points in time.

If you're at all familiar with the fantasy noir genre, you're probably wondering what the greater mystery is tying together the books. Well, as I said, John Taylor's reputation of being a badass is almost a weapon in and of itself. However, it's only in part because of his own actions; it turns out that a lot of people are afraid of whatever his mother is. She left his family when he was a child, and he has no idea who (or what) she is. But the implication is that she's big, she's bad...and she's coming back. Taylor's search for information on his mysterious parentage is a continuing thread throughout the novels, as some of his antagonists imply that they know more than they are telling about it.

While I love the books, that isn't to say there aren't some slight things I took issue with while reading them. First off, the books rely a whole lot on "noodle incidents" and "You don't wanna know". While, yes, it does add to some of the darkness that is so charming about the setting, having everything unexplained can get a little bit tiresome (although it gets better as you go through more of the books). The other major problem I have with the writing is something endemic to writing a series. Like any series of books, the author is worried that a reader will pick up a book somewhere in the middle, and not know what's going on. Fine. I get that. I understand.

But, when you're talking about John Taylor's gift, do you HAVE to use the exact same phrase every SINGLE GODDAMN BOOK? "I used my gift. I opened my Third eye, my Inner Eye, My Private Eye." Yes, the phrase was AWESOME the first time I read it, but if you're doing a marathon reading session of the books, the phrase gets REALLY old!

But, ignoring that, they're definitely a fun read, and probably makes an honorary place on my list of Fantasy/Sci-fi settings. If you're looking to get a Dresden Files alternative, this is definitely a good bet. Take a stroll around the Nightside. You'll have fun, if you watch your step


  1. Sounds cool. I didn't even know there was a fantasy noir genre

  2. (Continued from Facebook.)

    Fantasy noir is one of my favorite subgenres, and Simon R. Green's Nightside books are exactly why. "Weaponized" is the perfect word to describe John Taylor's reputation. As the books go on he learns more and more about himself and his powers, but even still, a lot of the time he's able to just stare people down until he gets the answers he wants. I think Green does a really good job too of showing the moments when Taylor really is bluffing, and only barely manages to avoid dying -- moments which only make his reputation grow on the retelling, of course.

    The descriptions are also great (in addition to the sheer badassery and Britishness). My favorite in the whole series is probably from Nightingale's Lament, page 142-3 in my copy:

    "It hit us both at the same time, a psychic assault so powerful and so vile we both staggered and almost fell. Something was watching us, from behind the blind, windowless walls of the Necropolis. A presence permeated the atmosphere, hanging on the air like an almost palpable fog, something dark and awful and utterly alien to human ways of thinking. It felt like crying and vomiting and the smell of your own blood, and it throbbed with hate. Approaching the Necropolis was like wading through an ocean of shit while someone you loved thrust knives into your face. Dead Boy just straightened his shoulders and took it in his stride, heading directly for the front door. I suppose there's nothing like having already died to put everything else in perspective. I gritted my teeth, hugged myself tightly to keep from falling apart, and stumbled forward into the teeth of the psychic assault."

    So glad to learn you read/like these books too, Jared! Please let me know as you read more of them, because I'd love to have someone to talk about them with. =P