Tuesday Reviews Day: HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, Daniel Jose Older

This may or may not be a weekly post. This feature may or may not be about books. It may also be about video games, smartphone apps, subscription boxes, and other randomly assembled nerdy things. Titles cannot be trusted. 

Cover art, Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

I got this book in my first ever Book Riot Quarterly subscription box. (More about the box later, because I plan to also sub to their YA box and compare the two.) Normally things like this would make me nervous; I am not a gambler and I never liked blind boxes or grab bags. But books, man! I’ll at least attempt to read pretty much anything.

Especially when the anything in question is supernatural noir that’s highly reminiscent of a book I recently read that still haunts my dreams. (Post(s) on that book may follow; no review has been posted for it yet as I didn’t take good enough notes the first time I read it.)

It didn’t have as much of the grimdark as I expected it to, but I’m not really sure why (aside from The Other Book) I thought it would even encroach on that territory. The noir feel seemed to suit the characters much better than grimdark would have, so I was surprised but not at all displeased.

Full disclosure: I love noir. I write supernatural spec fic. So this was kind of destined for my Top Hits list from the start, I suppose. And now, to the synopsis. I have and will always do my best to leave out any spoilers, so for those who have read the book it may seem that important points are missing. Please be considerate and don’t post spoilers in the comments without warning.

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Carlos Delacruz (yes that’s him in the cover art, swooning goes here) is not alive, but he isn’t really dead either. He works for a corporation called the New York Council of the Dead and basically wrangles rogue ghosts who cause too much trouble for the living. He finds himself assigned to eliminate a crazy person who is apparently attempting to close the rift between worlds and allow ghosts and humans to coexist. Anyone remotely familiar with this and similar genres will know immediately this is a bad idea.

Carlos kills the guy, but as the guy dies he shows Carlos a photo of his sister and asks Carlos to protect her from some shadowy, dangerous person.

Meanwhile, a strange force is taking over various parts of Carlos’ stomping grounds and threatening the life of a trusted ghostly figure. He and his ghostly friends soon realize the threat is a series of imp-like creatures called an ngk, which they cannot kill but must somehow stop before they destroy the ghost, Mama Esther. In a botched raid to drive out the ngks, one of the ghosts is killed and the other is grievously injured.

Carlos meets the dead man’s sister (Sasha) and discovers an immediate attraction and realizes she and the dead man are undead like him; she doesn’t know her brother is dead, and she doesn’t know Carlos killed him. Carlos researches the man he killed, looking into his wild accusations about the mysterious and dangerous person.

When Sasha does discover what he’s done, she betrays him, turning him over to the mysterious figure who is called Sarco, who hijacks Carlos’ soul on a journey to the Deeper Death and tries to harness Carlos’ power to close the rifts. Carlos fights back and realizes Sasha is gone. He enlists the remaining ghost, Riley, to help him find Sasha and has to evade and engage with Sarco across the city in an effort to stop the joining of the dead and undead realms.

Carlos and Riley manage to stop Sarco with minimal loss of life, and they whisk Sasha back to safety just in time. She’s nursed back to health, but reveals she’s pregnant and needs time to herself. She leaves Carlos alone with a tape recorded by her brother.

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And since I’m revamping this feature, I’m going to try a new wrap-up section.

How I found it: Book Riot Quarterly Box #06
Genre: Supernatural noir
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Nope
Is it a standalone? Nope. It’s part of a series called Bone Street Rumba, with the second novel expected to be published in 2016.
So what worked? World-building, for sure. Every choice Older made in this regard was on point, from the clothing to the characterization to the vocabulary. I like the layers of reality and the delineation between the realms of the living and the dead. The relationships between characters were charming but believable, relatable but new and exciting. And of course I’d have to mention the “rules” of the two conflicting worlds; I liked the way it was established that each world operated in a particular way, for a particular purpose — humans didn’t experience the undead realm the way ghosts did, and ghosts didn’t experience the living world the way humans did. This really served to make the entire atmosphere more immersive, at least for me.
What didn’t work? Maybe it’s nitpicky, but I would have liked to see the few ladies in the book have more agency. Kia, the cashier at Baba Eddie’s, seemed like she could have been a fairly strong character but she didn’t get much “screen time” so to speak. The other women, Sasha and Mama Esther, seemed at every turn to be defined and motivated by their relationships to and interactions with the men at the forefront.

Overall, I found the book to be a great read with imaginative characters and believable conflicts. A little supernatural, a little noir, a lot escapist fantasy. The writing was loose but not messy, making for a comfortable read with a cool swagger and plenty of effortless sexiness, not unlike its main character. I thoroughly enjoyed the first-person POV — which I must say is unusual for me — and I appreciated the colorful diversity of the world that felt vibrant but not forced. Basically, it was a super-sexy book that left me with dozens of questions that I just can’t wait ’til 2016 to have answered.

Edit: Older has published a short story focusing on Carlos and Kia and taking place within the world of the Bone Street Rumba series. Read it here

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