Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Mean Streets of Faeryland

Bishop O'Connell, The Forgotten: An American Faerie Tale
This review is a follow-up to Once Upon a Time In Olde Boston Towne

Children and teenagers are vanishing nationwide. Poor street kids mostly: the unwanted, the unloved, youth nobody will miss. Only the initiated truly understand the real pattern, though, as half-fae changelings and gifted young wizards vanish off the streets. It falls to the fae’s newly installed Regent of North America, the terse, mononymic Dante, to track the missing and reclaim the dispossessed. But mysterious forces outside Dante’s domain array history’s largest dark magical army against him.

Don’t call Bishop O’Connell’s second American Faerie Tale novel a sequel. The protagonists from O’Connell’s first novel appear as supporting characters, mainly in later chapters. Dante, who previously served mainly as a convenient plot driver, becomes central in a gritty story that’s equal parts Jim Butcher, Dashiell Hammett, and The Boondock Saints. These books form a series, but O’Connell doesn’t comfortably rehash past successes, veering instead into new directions like few genre writers would anymore.

O’Connell tells a two-pronged story reminiscent of Depression-era pulp novels. In his first storyline, Dante pursues clues about missing kids from Boston to Kansas to Seattle, and beyond. He enjoys all fae-kind’s magical resources in his investigation, but all the resources of a tiny, invisible minority has its limitations. This procedure-oriented storyline includes oblique, and not-so-oblique, nods to popular crime serials like Criminal Minds and The X-Files. It’s sleek, muscular, and doesn’t flinch from confrontation.

Bishop O'Connell
The second storyline features the wandering teenage wizard Wraith. (Okay, her name’s really Jane, but in O’Connell’s world, the dispossessed give themselves comic book names.) Rejected by both humanity and fae-kind, Wraith makes alliances with “fifties” and “slingers” (half-bloods and untrained wizards) to stay beneath general notice. But grey-robed child snatchers criss-cross America, seeking unwanted, magically gifted teens like her. They seem to especially want to capture Wraith, for reasons lost inside her swiss-cheese memory.

Veteran reader know these parallel storylines must eventually converge, ideally around the two-thirds point. Our only question becomes: when? And how will Dante’s masculine film noir plot and Wraith’s free-form punk explosion transform one another? As with O’Connell’s prior book, this novel doesn’t wholly break new ground. Rather, O’Connell repurposes narrative standards familiar to most genre readers, creating a story that’s both comfortingly familiar and dangerously frank in addressing our modern society’s deep festering wounds.

Where O’Connell’s first book was basically a conventional quest epic fleshed out with Jungian archetypes, this novel is a modern crime drama made larger by the inclusion of humanity’s legendary fears of the dark. Both share the theme of struggles for power, but they disagree deeply about what power means. Nobody here wants to wrest control of an idealized Celtic afterlife; they’re busy worrying about maintaining control within this world, which often proves much dirtier.

In exercising his newly-won, and precarious, dominion, Dante sometimes uses his inborn magical powers: shapeshifting, crossing great distances through magical forests, ensorcelling mere mortals to keep his secrets. But when confronting a disobedient fae administrator, he also doesn’t mind simply pulling his guns. Sometimes simple hardware still works best. Dante’s make-do ethical structure sometimes leaves us feeling clammy: he’s clearly the hero, but we frequently don’t approve of whatever he does to maintain his authority.

Wraith is frequently a more reliable character, inasmuch as she doesn’t have underlying morals. Her code has only two tenets, staying alive and staying loyal. She occupies a world where Manichaean concepts of good and evil don’t apply. But neither do winning and losing. Wraith’s world has two options: survive, or get captured by grey-robed snatchers. Nobody knows what the snatchers do with the teenagers they capture, but the trail of bodies gives a clue.

These two ethics bespeak a Nietzschean will-to-power motive directly counter to most fantasy. Though O’Connell has previously demonstrated that eternal verities exist in his universe, they don’t matter much. Humans might face everlasting judgement, but O’Connell’s fae characters, the ones who really drive this story, have their destinies written by whichever Court they’re beholden to. This results in a universe driven by one ethical imperative, familiar from the Greek tragedies Nietzsche loved: Winners win. Period.

Thus O’Connell’s characters demonstrate some of the most cold-blooded efficiency in literature since Sam Spade slept with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, then turned her over to the gallows. And oh look, one of O’Connell’s supporting characters is named Brigid. Probably a coincidence. O’Connell creates a world where we judge characters by their actions, not their intentions. Sometimes this is cold to individuals (brutal deaths are painfully common). But O’Connell’s epilogue implies that, in the end, balance obtains.

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