Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Back in Black (Black Knight Chronicles #2) by John G Hartness

 James and Greg have been called in by Sabrina for another case – gay men across the city are being brutally beaten and left for dead. One of them Sabrina’s own cousin and something supernatural is implicated.

But as they investigate, the story opens up a whole new development – they’re not dealing with men being attacked. They’re dealing with fairies (yeah, I’ve tried re-writing that about a dozen times and there’s absolutely no way to say it without making the implications glaring) and it’s an investigation that takes them to the realm of faerie itself.

Where they learn just how little they know not only about fairyland (and the dragon, fae and other beings within) but also about what it truly means to be a vampire. They have a lot more to learn

And they have trolls to fight – with swords, illegal gambling rings to break up and an angry Lilith to placate.

This is rapidly shaping up to be one of those series I gleefully like even though I can’t 100% say why. It’s not complex or deep- or full of nuance, but it’s fun fun fun. Did I mention fun? Because it’s fun. It has a lot of humour and a lot of irreverence and no-one taqkes themselves too seriously even when handling very serious matters. The characters bounce off each other extremely well, have some very good friendships that feels believable and they live.

I think that’s part of what makes this series so fun for me is that James and Greg, in their geekiness, with their hobbies, with their often fumbling ineptitude and general flailing around as vampires  feel like real people. Flawed, natural people. And, like in the first book, they’re also a wonderful example of vampires that aren’t MUAHAHAHA evil or moping, angsting and hating themselves. They’re not even the borderline-evil-oh-so-dangerous-but-oh-so-sexy vampire on the path to redemption. They can be sad – and Greg even has realistic, difficult struggles with his hunger and a major set back on having to feed from a human is a really good, well done example of that. But that’s it, they’re sad and troubled – they’re not being epicly tortured or screaming poetry at the moon.

That realism also follows in their work as detectives and with Sabrina. We actually have a cop who DOESN’T carry a set of lock picks and considers breaking an entering to be an actual crime that law enforcement should avoid! This makes her almost unique in detective fiction. There’s a lot of nitty gritty and unpleasantness unglossed over – like the fact if you die your pet cat will probably eat your face.

The world building has greatly expanded in this book and here I think there is a problem – and this is a problem that bleeds over into the story. This is the second book in the series and so far we have been treated to demons, immortal succubi, fallen angels, vampires, witches, fae of various kinds, demons and now entire faerie realms. I’m left feeling this is too much – this series is too young and not established enough to not just HAVE all these different creatures, but have stories that integrally include them. I think we could have used a book or even 2 of more mundane topics and more gradual introduction.

The world building itself was well done – and it melded nicely with the pacing of the book and generally wasn’t a problem. But I do think the journey to fairy land was a bit non-sequiter-ish, even with the fae being a topic it felt jarring and rather alien to the story, possibly intentionally. And when we reached the fairy elements, the detective elements just fell apart, it completely changed the tone of the book and not only removed the detective elements, but rendered their detective investigation somewhat moot. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the strengths of this book –not going to the fairy queen, accepting  a quest so she will hand over the answers, but tracking down clues and leads and good old mundane (but vampire enhanced) detective work. It became less a detective book and more an action novel.

I do love the banter in this book. It’s fun, it’s funny and it’s often hilarious. Also the banter works – it’s not forced, it’s not strained, it’s not convoluted and it’s not stilted. It’s just good and funny and works. And it’s mixed in with some wonderful pop culture references and genre references which I always appreciate – I do like the idea of characters in Urban Fantasy being aware of the Urban Fantasy genre, it amuses me, it does. And beyond the now almost inevitably “sparkly vampire” joke for which the entire genre will be blaming Stephenie Meyer for years, perhaps decades, to come.

When I realised this book was going to contain a series of gay-bashings I was wary. The last book had no GBLT people and was full of “no-homo” jokes.  I was worried to say the least.

But the book did a lot right – a lot very right. They didn’t pretend there was no homophobia and present a Charlotte that is wonderfully loving and accepting of gay people. There is a lot of homophobia – Steve is kicked out by his homophobic parents when he was a teenager, Sabrina refused to help him for fear that her parents would do the same. The police were generally ignoring the severe attacks until the numbers and patterns became too high for them to ignore. People repeatedly call Alex Steve’s partner and he constantly has to correct them that they’re married and they’re actually husbands. The nurse in the hospital tries to stop Alex visiting Steve’s bedside because she’s homophobic. There’s a lot of references to homophobia as it actually is without sugar coating or ignoring it while at the same time challenging it and presenting it as extremely wrong.

I was impressed.

There were some problems. Gay men in this book get described a lot more than straight men – in particular hair and clothing. It’s a small thing but it falls in with stereotype, that a gay man can be identified by clothing and style and that such things are more important. We have a few bad lines like “I couldn’t imagine a guy putting another guy in the hospital by beating him with a ballet shoe” which was ridiculously and grossly unnecessary and fit with the ongoing theme that a gay man would be somehow incapable of dishing out this kind of violence. I also take issue with everyone just letting go the Catholic priest’s refusal to call Alex anything more than Steve’s “partner” and act like that is some kind of concession from the man.

But the positive did outweigh the negative – and compared to most of what I’ve read in the genre this book was incredible for inclusion. Admittedly, the competition is damn slim, but it was a huge step up.

But I’m left with a question – all of the missing and beaten men were linked not by being gay, but by being fairy changelings. All the fairy changelings just happened to be gay, really? All of them? Every last one?

I strongly suspect someone out there thought the idea of gay fairies was oh-so-funny (the joke was made enough times) which is really depressing. So much of the representation here was done right – but it’s hard not to see something dubious in this.

We do have some ongoing problems with the women in this book – Jack wears some pretty strong Dresden Goggles. The fairy queen is, of course gorgeous. Sabrina Law is constantly referred to as sexy and gorgeous. Lillith is evil, seductive and, of course, gorgeous. She exists to be a supernatural femme fatale dropping sex. They even refer to Father Mike’s Wiccan contact as “that cute witch” and she doesn’t even appear in the book. And I have no idea why James and Greg could get decent armour in the fairy kingdom but Sabrina had to get some kind of chainmail bikini. There’s a lot of sexualisation of women in this book – and in this series so far – that is very dehumanising and reductive. Even if James does find Sabrina attractive, even that isn’t necessary to mention as constantly as it is – nor is it necessary for him to consider their nearly every interaction to contain some element of him considering how much chance he has with her romantically. We need to have some more time where he thinks of Sabrina as a person rather than a love interest

There are some POC in this book but they play very minor roles, often without names, which is relaly lacking considering the cast.

There are many ways this series could improve, yet it has already worked its way onto the list of books I’m really enjoying and I look forward to seeing where it goes. Part of that could be novelty and that, among the overwhelming world building and Dresden Goggles, stops it being a 4 – but it has a lot of potential to become one and much higher in the future.