Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Double Cross by Carolyn Crane, Book 2 of the Disillusionist Triology

Justine, the hypochondriac disillusionist who can channel her fear into others, is faced with growing moral quandaries in this book.

She loves Otto and wants to please him – but is unsure how she can fit in his so rigid black and white view of the world or live up to the high faith he puts in her. At the same time Packard remains compelling – Packard with his shades of grey and his dubious means always justified by the ends.

And she has to continue to disillusion the highcap criminals that Otto has imprisoned – not doing so could lead to Otto imprisoning Packard – and dying from the stress of holding all the forcefields in place. But Ez, her latest target, doesn’t seem guilty – and when Justine’s already finding it hard to justify the disillusionment of the guilty, it’s even harder to deal with disillusioning someone who may be innocent. But this highcap can control dreams and control people through dreams – in the past she was thought to force people to become cannibal sleep walkers. And she’s in Packard and her heads – does she dare not disillusion her, even if she is innocent?

And worse, there are the Dunces. A trio of serial killers stalking Midcity who are targeting highcaps – and are immune to highcap powers.

This book has a very strong theme of moral questioning. Of black and white thinking over shades of grey. Of whether ends justify the means. Of choosing between what’s right and self-preservation. Of survival vs freedom, of freedom vs morality , of the unintended consequences of well intended actions. There are a dozen well examined and deep issues all along these lines – from Justine trying to be free from Parker, to Otto’s very rigid view of the world, to J’s discomfort about disillusioning anyone and exacerbated by the idea of disillusioning an innocent person. There’s the battle to be free from parker and the consequences of that when it causes Parker to be unable to fulfil his deal with Otto. There are Parker’s lies and whether they are justified for the sake of his freedom and what he has endured. There’s a debate on Parker’s past and whether he was judged too harshly. There’s – well, there are dozens of these deeply fascinating and complicated debates that really mke you think

Over and over I wondered what I would do in that situation. I wondered whether something was a necessary evil and J was being nit-picky or whether she had a real point. I wondered over practicality and whether they were being naive and ignoring reality – I also wondered whether the excuse of pragmatism was being abused for selfish justification. I wondered how many ends there would be that required so many dubious means. I wondered at whether it was right to judge someone who was so desperate and so pressed. I wondered whether Justine ‘s moral ponderings were in fact a glorious luxury – that she could indulge in because she is free from her hypochondria and because it allows her to disavow blame for anything she does onto Packard.

I wondered a lot, and found the debates and questions interesting and fun to pick over – after all, I enjoyed reading jurisprudence text books in law school, I enjoy this kind of thing.

However, all of this moral musing was not balanced by a large, extensive plot. As such the plot, the action, the actual meat of the book is overwhelmed by a large amount of character introspection and navel gazing. I don’t know if I read this book or was lectured by it. I don’t know if I was reading an Urban fantasy novel, or being treated to a philosophy text book. The story just couldn’t compete with the navel gazing. Which means, story-wise, the pacing is clunky and slow, dragged down by endless maunderings and debates and guilt and angst fests. We have paragraph after paragraph of Justine's internal monologue with not a whole lot happening

It’s like trying to get things done with a hyperactive Jimminy Cricket on treble espressos constantly butting in. It didn’t lead to the story flowing well and, even as someone who likes these kind of debates, I was kind of wishing that J would just get on with things and stop treating us to another round of moral tail-chasing.

And that is a major problem with the book. The plot, when we find it, is interesting and appealing albeit not particularly deep, nuanced or exciting (partly because of the pacing). We have an investigation of a threat and the analysis of Justine’s disillusionment actions – but even then Justine, the character we follow, isn’t an overly active participant in either. She’s worried whether EZ is innocent, but she then passes on investigation of that to Simon. She’s worried about her dreams, but it’s Packard who takes steps to protect them. She’s worried about the serial killing Dunces, but she’s only pulled into the investigation late in the game. And even then the only information she adds to the search is info she stumbles over rather than actively seeks. In some ways the plot seems to swirl around Justine while she sits in the middle of it navel gazing.

We learn more about Otto and Packard’s past, which is interesting, and also learn more about the nature of disillusionment and exactly what it means and what it can do once it has been freed from their assumptions. The insight into their past is interesting but nothing that wasn’t already hinted at and served more to add to the moral tail-chasing

Inclusion-wise, this book is heavily erased, being nearly entirely straight and white. Justine isn’t especially pro-active though she does fight for her freedom, she also spends a lot of time pining after Otto, worrying about her morality and generally being a passive character more than an active participant in the plot. While the previous book did a wonderful job of looking at mental illness, this has been rather lost in this book since they can all zing their problems away.

All in all, I found this book to be dissatisfying, especially after the first book intrigued me. Not enough happened, not enough advanced (and the advancement we did get happened very close to the end of the book) there wasn’t enough activity in the book to justify its length. It had lots of text without the story to fill it – and the story that there was wasn’t original or special enough to be worth digging for – even if it was amusing and engaging. It was hard not be frustrated by the book, and a trifle bored at times – which is a shame, because with this world and concept I know this could have been a much better story.