Monday, April 29, 2013

First Grave on the Right (Charley Davidson #1) by Darynda Jones


Charlie Davidson, perhaps the only person who can live up to that name, is a reaper. The Grimm Reaper to be precise. She sees dead people, talks to them and helps them on their way as a walking portal to the afterlife

It also helps her as a PI – and her cop uncle – in solving murder cases for the police, being able to talk to the murdered victims and learn exactly where the bodies are buried and who the killer is will do that. Of course, it doesn’t win her many fans or converts and more than a few are suspicious of her, Garret Swopes for one.

Then she is approached by 3 ghosts – we dead lawyers from the same firm, murdered over the same case, a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a teenaged boy. In investigating, she also finds keys to a mystery from her past – a stranger shadowy figure that follows her and saves her from danger; admittedly by severing people’s spines. She may now find the truth about him – and work to save his life for a change.

The grim reaper is always an interesting aspect to take on in Urban Fantasy that can bring with it a lot of interesting points with it. It can also be just another way of saying “medium” or “necromancer.” I think so far Charlie is in the latter category but there are a lot of hints that there’s a whole lot more to come. Of course, as it stands we have a person who can see the dead working with the police force as a private detective…

… I know! I know! It’s so very overdone that your eyes are already rolling. Magical powers, private detective, works for the police, it has been done and done and done. Yet this one works and is far more than the pattern we’ve all seen established so many times over. The way she interacts with people around her, the way she uses her powers, the way she investigates all comes together to be far more than the sum of its parts. This is classic proof that an overused pattern can still have fresh life breathed into it and still create and original, interesting and excellently fun story.

If I had to dredge up criticism of the plot it would be that we had too much happening in the middle. Too many lines on the same plot left me confused at times, trying to figure out exactly what was happening and how all these leads fit together; her own project looking for Reyes coupled with the dead lawyers and the missing children and the wrongfully convicted man caused me to pause now and then to remember how they all fit together into one case – more or less.

But it’s a small complaint and stems as much from the book being the first in a series as much as anything, so everything is a learning curve. The pacing and action are both generally excellent and kept me reading without a second’s hesitation

And it’s funny. Really really funny. I always have high marks for any book that can make me laugh out loud

Charlie Davidson is one of the better Urban Fantasy protagonists out there. In fact I love her. Her snark, her sarcasm and her sense of the ridiculous make her immense fun to read. And her breasts – Danger and Will Robinson. And she has so much fun as well – she like living, she has fun. She certainly has moments of guilt and sadness – like many Urban Fantasy protagonists, she has a sad and tragic childhood, but it doesn’t consume her. She doesn’t wallow or rant for pages of grief and she gets through most of the book with a sense of joy and amusement even when things aren’t going well.  She does have uncertainties and worries and bad experiences with sharing her abilities with the wrong person and she certainly worries about them – but that doesn’t become the be all and end all of her character like so many UF protagonists. She is so free of so many of the tropes I’ve come to know and loathe

She’s confident and capable and skilled in her profession even without her special abilities. She also embraces her powers, her being a Reaper, even when they have downsides and come with a duty. She’s happy to fulfil her duty, to help souls pass on and help both the grieving people and the dead find peace. There’s no epic “why is this happening to me, why couldn’t I be normal” even though it has made her life difficult in many ways. She uses her powers in her job with full confidence in them, she’s confident she can do things – even reckless with it after her many brushes with death. Despite that. None of her actions can be considered Spunky. She takes risks, but she has a risky job and the risks are usually acceptable and understandable. She can be snarky with other people but that comes from being burned and not wanting to let people get close enough to her secret that they decide she’s insane – it’s a pre-emptive defence that she has good reason for.

She has some excellent friends and I love how she bounces off the other characters – be it the dead lawyers each with their own personalities and issues, or Cookie her long suffering, awesome assistant and confidant who allows for info dumping, wisecracking and more fun. Her developing relationship with Swopes which I have a lot of hope for – and her snarking affection with her father and uncle. She does have an evil stepmother which is rather clichéd, but she also has a good female friend and when commenting on ghostly lawyer Elizabeth’s appearance, she didn’t head down the old jealousy line.

Reyes is intriguing both as a maintained mystery to add an extra flare of the supernatural to the mix – he kept the supernatural elements going especially as the investigation was entirely mundane – (which is something I also loved. I loved that we had a police investigation and woo-woo powers into mundane crime, I loved that we could have a story of truly incredible evil being committed that didn’t need magic or monsters to make it so). Reyes promises to be an extreme complication for the rest of the series and really opened up the hooks for the next books. As a character there is a lot that is unknown about him as we’ve seen him being both massively powerful and incredibly vulnerable which is intriguing – even if there is a whole lot of love at first sight about him. What I don’t care for is the flashback to when they were teenagers and he threatened her with rape. I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, it didn’t fit in at all and left us with a toxic stain on Reyes that’s not going to wash off.

We do have a large number of POC in this book – Garret Swopes and Reyes are both major characters we will be seeing more of. But also a number of the side characters are Asian or Latino – the book doesn’t rely on its two prominent POC as the be all and end all of inclusion and doesn’t white-wash the background. It’s interesting to see the balance of both – many books and certainly TV shows have one or the other. There are no GBLT characters in the book though.

In all I would say this book is delightfully refreshing. It takes many of the patterns we have seen and seen and seen and ye gods seen – and then adds a completely fresh look to them. It’s like we have the patterns and without the clichés, the similar settings without the tired tropes. It has a story that is intriguing and important and compelling, a supernatural world that definitely demands exploring and a protagonist who is fun, pro-active, capable, unashamedly sexual who doesn’t hate all other women. And it’s all sprinkled with a wonderful dose of humour. I’ll sign on for that.