Monday, June 11, 2012

What Happens In Fantasyland Stays In Fantasyland

Review, Vicki Pettersson, The Taken: Celestial Blues, Book One

PI Griffin “Grif” Shaw and journalist Katherine “Kit” Craig are both outside their time. Kit made that choice: she’s part of the rockabilly subculture, which adores wide lapels, pompadours, and boxy Detroit cars. Grif made no choice: he hasn’t come to grips with his murder in 1960. When one ill-chosen act of kindness forces Grif back into human flesh, and into Kit’s life, they must stand together to face down a threat that may shatter Las Vegas to its desert roots.

I’m of two minds about Vicki Pettersson’s noir fantasy romance, the first in a trilogy. On the one hand, Pettersson doesn’t just follow the conventions of a repetitive genre. Though she knows what audiences expect, and doles it out at the right moments, her decision to emphasize mystery and use fantasy only subtly makes an interesting change. Unlike, say, Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire, Pettersson uses her supernatural heroes to solve a very earthy crime.

On the other hand, that virtue is also a problem. In Grif, Pettersson creates a hero heightened with the promise which only fantasy offers, then essentially sidelines that for most of the book. She launches two parallel narratives. In one, Grif, after half a century as an apprentice angel, must come to grips with the limitations of the flesh. In the other, he and Kit must solve a crime before the criminal kills them both. And the two narratives scarcely meet.

Don’t get me wrong. The heroes must solve an interesting crime laden with urgency, and a criminal who feels oily to readers without being obvious. Pettersson uses the “What Happens In Vegas” ethic in an unexpected way, turning Sin City on its head. Does a city premised on sensual indulgence have a bottom limit? Where must a vice merchant draw the line? Pettersson gives her characters strong views on these questions, but provides no pat answers.

My views on urban fantasy as a genre are well documented: much as I enjoy the premise, it often descends into the same old routine. Anyone could say this about any genre, since some readers don’t want to be challenged, and would rather see more of what already makes them comfortable. Yet such slipstream fiction’s heightened reality should lead to challenges about what makes us real and human.

Some authors do that. One of my prior reviews dealt with three authors who used fantastic elements in real world settings to draw our attention to the unexamined prejudices many ordinary people share. Pettersson starts in the same direction, since one of her protagonists has crossed the line between human and superhuman, then finds himself thrust back. Grif’s struggle with his protean nature is remarkably subtle for a genre that often prefers bombast.

Yet she undercuts her gains by a reliance on frankly ordinary interactions. Considering how Grif comes to the story laden with knowledge of the transcendent in a way few mortals will ever have, he should upend the characters’ lives and shine a light into their hidden corners. Instead, his celestial intervention consists of grilling a witness after he’s dead. And Grif’s romantic encounter with Kit is downright humdrum.

I kept waiting for this book to break out of the ordinary. It had multiple opportunity. A scene of organized debauchery could attract sufficient psychic energy to breach the gap between the ordinary and the transcendent. An angel’s new discovery of life’s sensual pleasures might overthrow Sin City’s reliance on anonymous, repetitive gluttony. Yet it never quite happens.

This list of shortcomings, though, overlooks one important point: I really like this book. The narrative didn’t play it safe, and while its ending was predictable, the path it took to that ending took me by surprise several times. I particularly like that Pettersson focuses on a human crime, because many writers (Seanan McGuire comes to mind) largely exclude mortals from the story.

And I like Pettersson’s use of religion. Many urban fantasy writers are frustratingly vague when it comes to God. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden has had sit-down confabs with archangels and elementals, yet still refuses to take sides. Though Pettersson narrows her focus to cosmology, and deals very little with theology, she at least uses a topic many of her peers carefully avoid.

I just wish the story halves were better integrated. In a crowded noir fantasy market, authors must create a bang to stand out. Pettersson has good characters, good situation, and powerful conflict. Merging them more seamlessly would take her story from merely good to great.

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