Hale’s portal fantasy The Rifter was one of my favorite books that I read this year. (I know, I have read very little this year. But it would have been one of my favorites no matter how many books I read.)

Wicked Gentlemen lacks the intensity and the epic quality of The Rifter, but has its own charms. In steampunk-ish world where the descendants of demons are an oppressed minority, Inquisition Captain Harper walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck demon detective, Belimai Sykes, to get some help with a murder case.

If that sounds like the opening to a noir, it’s because it has many of the elements of one: the teeming city, the straightlaced cop with a secret, the underworld into which the detective must descend, the narrator whose cynicism hides a tarnished and bitter idealism, the mystery whose solution reveals the social malaise at the heart of society, the sexual charge between detective and client.

But it’s a noir in which the femme homme fatale is the detective rather than the client, the romance is between two men, and the barriers between the haves and the have-nots include actual biological differences: not only to the demons have special powers (which mostly don’t do them any good) but the light of the human side of the city hurts their eyes, and the air of the demon side burns human skin.

It’s also more optimistic than most noir. The establishment may be corrupt, but it’s not such a dog-eat-dog world on an individual level. Many of the characters are quite likable. I was really rooting for the cop/criminal romance to succeed. It’s more a fantasy with a romantic angle than a romance in a fantasy world, but the romance was very well-done. (A one-night stand that becomes more.) It’s surprisingly sweet.

As in The Rifter, female characters are secondary but all have their own agendas and motivations. The language gives the cynical rhythms of noir a sensual lushness. Try the first page and see how you like it.

I should probably mention that one of the main characters is a drug addict. It’s a fantasy drug, and the reason he’s an addict involves the nature of the world and is crucial to the plot. Still, FYI.

Wicked Gentlemen
A noir mystery so well-written and cleverly structured that it overcame my usual dislike of reading about narcissistic hipster yuppies, not to mention my usual dislike of multiple plot elements which are too spoilery to mention.

Nick’s wife Amy has vanished without a trace, and Nick’s very first chapter contains unsettling musings about the beauty of her skull and the confession that he lied repeatedly in his interview with the police. His narration, which begins the day vanished and continues forward from there, alternates with Amy’s diary, which begins when they first met and also continues forward. Nick is clearly concealing some secrets, but did he kill her? Amy’s narration seems more subtly unreliable, detailing how she makes herself into a paper-thin image of the perfect woman, as portrayed in the shallow magazine quizzes she writes. Is she really fooling herself?

I guessed the main twist upon hearing the premise, and another about a quarter of the way into the book; if you’ve read a lot of mysteries, you will have come across these twists before, though probably not half so well-executed. So the pleasure for me was in the excellent prose and the suspense of the unfolding, in the details rather than the broad strokes. I knew where the story was headed, in general terms, but the smaller twists took me by surprise. I was up till 3:00 AM reading, and have no regrets.

Warning: even for noir, the characters are incredibly unlikable. I did care what happened to them, but not because I liked them.

You can read the beginning of the book here.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

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A compelling noir/fantasy mash-up, in which the lively but corrupt and decaying city is Johannesburg, South Africa, and the cynical detective is Zinzi December, ex-journalist, ex-convict, with the mark of her dark past literally clinging to her back in the form of a sloth.

Zinzi is one of the animalled, people whose crimes/sins/guilt/next reincarnation/take your pick of theory manifests as a companion animal, empathic but silent, which cannot be separated from them and whose death will suck its human into the Undertow, a deadly shadow which, like the animals themselves, is a great mystery.

The animalled also get some sort of psychic/magical talent. Zinzi's is finding stuff... or people. But, because you don't become animalled unless you've caused someone's death, the animalled are treated with suspicion and disdain, have a hard time getting jobs, and mostly end up in some sort of ghetto where honest work is hard to come by.

Zinzi supplements her finding income by running 419 scams (aka Spanish Prisoner, aka Nigerian spam), and a big part of the story is watching her try to dig herself out of the moral, financial, and emotional hole she's in. She's not always likable, but she and Sloth are definitely interesting.

I love companion animals, I love noir, I love books with strong narrative voices, I love books with well-written snappy dialogue, I love clever interstitial material likes excerpts from magazines and so forth (the hilarious nod to The Golden Compass!), and I love well-drawn depictions of cities, so this novel, which features all those things, was right up my alley.

The second half isn't as strong as the first, and the climax takes the book from noir-dark to somewhat ridiculously grimdark, though the ending is good and not, as I was beginning to worry, rocks fall, everybody dies. I also was much more interested in the Undertow and the animals than in the mystery plot, but the mystery plot takes over the second half of the book. Still, this is a very strong, unusual, interesting novel.

I read a sample of this on Kindle and liked it enough to instantly buy the rest. However, the Kindle version has enough formatting problems that I would recommend getting the hard copy instead. (I assume the hard copy doesn't replicate all the broken lines, etc, that plague the Kindle edition.)

Zoo City

Spoilers lurk below!

Read more... )
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