Monday, March 18, 2013

What Happens In Fantasyland, Part 2

Vicki Pettersson, The Lost (Celestial Blues, Book 2)
This review is a follow-up to What Happens In Fantasyland Stays In Fantasyland.
Avenging angel Griffin “Grif” Shaw gets tapped to escort a suffering addict to his eternal rest. But Grif’s human honey, journalist Katherine “Kit” Craig, can’t let a lonely teen die in squalor, and tries to intervene. Deep inside a Las Vegas drug den, Kit discovers a new drug that causes a long, stuporous high, but rots the flesh from tweakers’ bones. To Grif’s horror, the drug does something worse: it provides a gateway for demons to take human flesh.

Unlike the first book in Pettersson’s “Celestial Blues” series, The Taken, in which supernatural gumshoe solves a human crime, this second volume more carefully integrates the transcendent and the earthly. The human characters see Sin City boiling into a gang war between Russians and Cubans. They don’t realize that their anger, venality, and selfish ambition open doors for powerful creatures that feed off sins. Be careful what you call; you may not like who answers.

Following the first book, Kit Craig and Grif Shaw have fallen into a comfortable relationship of sex, breaking hot stories, and taking the dead onto the next life. But tension exists. Grif, who died in 1960 and returned in the prior book (the explanation is not brief), has spent over fifty years amid transcendent beings who see the whole of time. Kit remains an idealist at twenty-nine years of age. This gulf colors their relationship, pushing their buttons at awkward moments.

Grif remains fixated on solving the mystery of his first life: who killed him and his wife one late Vegas night? This perfectly reasonable quest interferes with his relationship with Kit. Meanwhile, Kit so desires to do the right thing that she doesn’t think about what the right thing is in the long haul. Kit’s aggressive idealism appears flighty to Grif, while Grif’s desire to right erstwhile wrongs looks to Kit like he cannot commit to the present. Both want to do right, but talk past one another.

Kit and Grif’s investigation comes to include the police (Kit has a remarkable symbiotic relationship with an affable cop), but also two violent gangs who shadow the two heroes. In trying to do the right thing, in other words, the heroes help hasten a violent confrontation, a conflagration that threatens to bring Vegas down. Pettersson presents Sin City as gangrene on the face of the earth, which Kit and Grif must excise if they would save the patient.

Pettersson’s writing propels the characters through a strange, yet entirely natural, plot. As a dead soul made flesh from 1960, Grif is a man out of his time, a refugee from postwar noir classics. Kit, a “rockabilly” devotee, tries to recreate herself as a woman of Grif’s time, yet remains part of the Twenty-First century. Where most urban fantasies awkwardly try to tell Dashiell Hammett stories in the present without saying so, Pettersson makes her anachronisms explicit.

This extends to Pettersson’s language. Like many urban fantasy novelists, Pettersson cherry-picks plot stylings from romance writing, with its florid linguistic ornamentation. (Her sex scenes are much more judiciously written than Delilah Devlin's.) But her mystery elements reflect terse, laconic mid-century prose. At times, this shift really draws attention to itself: does anybody. Really. Talk. Like. This? But mostly, Pettersson manages the split well.

Fantasy generally flourishes by its reliance on larger-than-life events in a world transcending the ordinary. Urban fantasy has enjoyed faddish popularity by folding mythic content into real-world settings. But too many urban fantasists produce small, quotidian stories. Vicki Pettersson straddles the line: she gives us realistic, plausible crimes, but parallel stories of transcendent might. Not everyone will like this dualism, but it at least bespeaks willingness to take risks.

This book exceeds the first one, in that it’s more integrated. Maybe Pettersson needed to write the first book to set the stage, because many of the threads that bind this immensely complex story together come from what she wrote before. This means it’s hard to come into the story cold, even though this second novel is clearly stronger, more confident, and more thoroughly constructed than the first. But if you’ve read the first, this one makes a good payoff.

Urban fantasy often suffers from unimaginative, wheezy storytelling. Pettersson provides the noir paradigms readers have come to expect, the romantic encounters readers enjoy, and the hocus pocus that makes us dream. But she also steps outside her genre’s comfy confines and takes a shot in the dark. This whole genre is imperfect, but Petterson flourishes by taking smart chances.

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