So if you read my review for Black Magic Woman, you know I’m invested in this author even though the book didn’t do a thing for me. Why? Because after selling THREE novels (I’m guessing Evil Ways was the third), he decided to attend the Odyssey Writer’s Workshop in 2008. Which made me insatiably curious about how his craft will evolve over this series, which meant I had to pick up the second book.
What made me read it right away, aside from the fact I’m on a let’s-analyze-UF! kick, is the fact I glanced at the acknowledgments and learned that Gustainis completed the final draft while at Odyssey. So of course, by time the third book, Symphony for the Devil, comes out in 2010, we’ll have three stages of Gustainis’s writing. Book one, before Odyssey. Book two, during Odyssey. Book three, after Odyssey.
That just makes my critical and analytical self squee with glee.
The premise: in book two, someone’s brutally murdering children for their organs, and this time, it isn’t the culprits from Black Magic Woman. There’s more than one murderer, making Quincey and his partner Libby to realize that whoever is responsible is planning something BIG. To make things even worse, the person orchestrating the murders might ALSO be responsible for the murders of several white witches, and unfortunately, Libby’s on the hit list. It’s up to Quincey and Libby to figure out what’s going on, who’s behind it and why, because any more kids get kill. And before Libby ends up dead.
Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers.
So let’s say this first: I definitely see an improvement in the writing, especially towards the beginning. It was a little tighter, even with multiple POVs, and Gustainis did a good job building suspense.
I’m also starting to recognize the style that Gustainis is utilizing for this series. Sure, it’s urban fantasy mystery, but despite all the gory murders and deaths and whatnot, this is written with a rather light hand that makes jokes whenever appropriate. It balances out the darkness of the book, which doesn’t work for me personally, but for me, it’s important to recognize that Gustainis isn’t setting out to write the SCARIEST HORROR NOVEL EVER. He’s trying to have fun.
I have problems with this brand of fun.
Still lurking in the pages: the dreadful use of the word “podner” as well as “cunt” (but only by bad guys referring to the white witches, so it’s okay!). Gustainis did have a prisoner start to use the n-word in regards to FBI Special Agent Fenton, but the prisoner restrained himself, which said more than the actual use of the word ever would. I’d like to see Gustainis utilize such restraint more often, because frankly, “cunt” is worse than “fuck” in my dictionary, no matter how bad the villain is using it, and if it’s going to be used, you’re allowed, like, ONE USAGE per book. Maybe one usage every TWO books. But not more than once in each book, and that’s what Gustainis is doing here. Oy.
There’s also the ridiculous number of POVs. On one hand, the story is so widespread that I understand the need to fill in the gaps for the reader. However, there were some scenes we just didn’t need at all, like Mr. Billionaire who wants to live forever getting an erection while watching the witches’s revels below and requests a secretary to give him a blow job. Really? No. I don’t need to read that. I don’t care, I really don’t. He’s an old, uber-wrinkled geezer, damn it.
And that brings me to another point (not the old, uber-wrinkled geezer part): there’s so many points of view that I just don’t connect to the characters, and therefore I stop caring. At first, it looked like we’d get just Quincey, Libby, Fenton, and Colleen, which I could’ve lived with, but no. We start getting the henchmen’s POV’s, the villain Pardee’s, various POV’s from white witches, and I reach a point where I want a tighter, more focused story that’s not hopping from head to head (and across the US) just to connect the dots. Make your POV characters work harder to figure stuff out. Really! It’s more exciting that way.
It’s not to say Gustainis doesn’t have a quick read. It is. The pages turn fast, and that’s always a good thing. But the plot, while a bit stronger than Black Magic Woman, isn’t the organic kind that makes me wonder what’s happening, therefore emotionally investing me in the story. I already know because I’m getting the POV of every stinking person in the book, and knowing all the sides of the story kills the tension. For me. That and the fact that Mr. Billionaire’s only reason for FUNDING all of this shit was to get eternal life. Been there, done that. Well, I haven’t personally, but it’s a familiar plot.
Then there’s the cameos. Now, I don’t mind references to pop culture. That’s a good, fun thing and it’s realistic. The Mulder/Scully comments between Fenton and Colleen were great. However, the actual cameos? I winced (even though I was prepared for it as I read the acknowledgments first and knew he had permission) when Quincey and Libby went to Chicago to meet up with a wizard named Harry who had trouble around technology. We didn’t SEE Harry in the book, mind you, but I recognized that bar and the owner, and I’ve only ever read Storm Front. But then, THEN he uses Frank. Admittedly, unless you watched the show Millennium or you paid VERY CLOSE ATTENTION to the X-Files episode of the same name, you’re not going to get this reference at all. But I’ve done both: the cameo here is Frank Black from Millennium who’s story is way to complicated to get into here BUT who has a daughter named Jordan, who has evil forces who are after him, and who belonged to a group that used the ouroboros symbol (a snake eating its own tail). Here, we have a Frank who owns his own bar, the Ouroboros Bar and Grill, mentions belonging to a group that prevented absolute evil and craziness at the turn of the century (which is what the show was about), has a daughter named Jordan, and is described to fit Lance Henrickson’s portrayal of Frank Black.
Stop. Please stop. I know it’s supposed to be a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the audience in the know, but please stop. Not only do I take issue with the portrayal of Frank in this book (minor character he is), but this weirdly close to fan fiction in a way I don’t feel comfortable seeing in a published book that has no relation (nor ownership) of the characters making cameos.
Here’s the thing: Butcher built his own world and own magic system. I don’t want Quincey and Libby in a world where the world-building and magic system can coincide. That makes THIS book derivative and unoriginal. Nor do I want to see a cameo of a character who I adore very much be used so obviously for shits and giggles. Sure, we never get Frank’s last name, but all the clues were there. If the guy’s name was just Frank and he owned the Ouroboros Bar and Grill, I’d be okay. But he has a daughter named Jordan. He mentions without naming the Millennium Group and describes how he felt about the work he did for them (btw, I don’t believe Frank would have that POV on the group, just saying), and then there’s the little handshake he does at the end with Hannah, which I’m pretty sure comes from the show, and it drives me crazy.
It’s a big task to ask your reader to suspend disbelief to buy into your world, your characters, and your writing. Don’t go blasting it to kingdom come by putting in cameos of characters that aren’t your own, even if it is for a laugh. It’s not your world. Referring to pop culture is fine, but how can you refer to the television show X-Files and then use Frank Black as if he’s a real person? Both are Chris Carter’s creations, and both exist in Chris Carter’s same universe.
ANYWAY. That pissed me off. Pop culture references, GOOD! Cameos of characters that don’t belong to you, BAD!
There’s also the issue of sex. There’s a part of me that doesn’t mind that Colleen had to fuck the prisoner to get the info she wanted, but there was a part of me that hoped, when Quincey learned of the name Pardee, that him contacting Fenton would happen in time to make getting information from the prisoner moot and therefore, Colleen wouldn’t have to sleep with him. The scene is meant to be sleezey and you sympathize with Colleen and understand why she does it, but I wish it didn’t have to go that far.
And honestly, I’m not sure I’m liking how sex or sexual acts are handled in this book. There’s a certain level of authorial judgment being leveled here, and you get the impression that only bad guys do things like want blow-jobs or sleep with multiple people at multiple times, yada, yada, yada. And even Libby, who’s bi-sexual, draws the line at threesomes, saying she isn’t a skank and that’s why she won’t do it. So, are all women who have threesomes skanks? Maybe that’s your opinion, but it seems that if there’s a sexual activity that isn’t traditional, Gustainis seems to either make fun of it or he has the bad guys do it, thereby implying that said activities aren’t something good people engage in. Oh, and I didn’t appreciate how the characters who liked the heavy metal music at the end were either BAD or obviously not purely good, like Hannah. That annoyed the hell out of me. It all reeks of judgment.
What’s that you say? It’s the characters, not the author? Don’t make that ignorant assumption that if the author writes it, that’s what the author believes?
I understand that. I really do. But when you have so many POVs, not only does an authorial voice start to assert itself, but when all those characters hold the same opinions based on how good or bad they are, well, come on. The characters, good or bad, have yet to really flesh out into three-dimensional people and that’s also part of the problem. Hannah, who’s on the good guy’s side but takes great pleasure in killing the bad, and Pardee and the black witches all like heavy metal and the good guys like Fenton, and Quincey and the white witches can’t wait for the shit to end, that’s cliche. When all the bad guys/gals have loose sexual morals or have a certain sexual freedom to their lives, and the good guys/gals DON’t, that’s a cliche.
Moving on: I do like that Libby sort of saved herself at the end (though the idea for minimizing your wand and sticking it up your vagina was a bit, well, ODD to come up with, because talk about pre-planning: you do this just in case someone kidnaps your body while your astral projecting (or whatever) and plans on stripping you naked? Oh boy.), but overall, the book devolved into a kind of fluff that, despite the horrors presented, didn’t so much make me blink due to all the stuff mentioned above.
Give It Away: Gustainis is getting better, but he’s still not reached the level of addiction necessary for me to truly want to keep reading the series, and there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Since the final draft of this book was written while he was at Odyssey, I’m giving him one more try in this series, just to see what a post-Odyssey book looks like. Right now, his characters need fleshing out, they need humanizing, but I’m starting to recognize that Gustainis’s style of urban fantasy (dark subject matter handled with a very light hand and a touch of humor that can be interpreted by cynics like me as cheese) just isn’t what I’m looking for in the genre. One more go, but if Gustainis doesn’t improve, I’ll stop there until he writes something completely different and totally unrelated to this series. If you weren’t a fan of Black Magic Woman, this book probably won’t do much for you either; however, I do think you can get away with reading this one without reading the first, as you’re told everything you need to know.
Cover Commentary: yet another lovely cover by Chris McGrath, and a scene from the book, no less! Still, what’s with Libby’s white dress? Closer examination tells me it is NOT a Marilyn Monroe copy, but it’s close enough to make me wonder why on Earth our white witch is dressed like that, especially while fighting evil. But hey, at least there’s no tattoos!