Monday, January 12, 2015

Dark Currents (Agent of Hel #1) by Jacqueline Carey

Daisy is the child of a demon, which means she has a constant temptation to embrace her vast potential power – and possibly end the world. This would be a bad thing
Unfortunately her job as Hel’s (that would be the Norse goddess Hel, not Hell) liaison to the Midwestern Eldritch resort town of Pemkowet gives her a lot of temptation – especially when the children of some angry right wingers get themselves killed and the grieving parents use it as a weapon to try and drive the Eldritch out of town.
This book is a classic “everything is real” Urban Fantasy world – so we have vampires, ghouls, werewolves, demons, angels and just about everything else. This is always a tick in the plus column for me as they’re my preferred kind – so long as enough effort is put in to build the world, make it original and do something with the creatures. As I’ve said before, there’s no point in having a hundred mythical creatures in your story if I can replace half of them with werecucumbers and it not make any difference to the plot.

Which isn’t the case here – we have a definite sense of culture and distinct nature for each of the prominent supernatural beings – the vampires (however briefly appearing), the werewolves and some of the Norse critters as well as the Ghouls (which have a really fascinating and completely unique concept that I really liked). There’s also some nice research there fleshing out some of the mythology

The world itself is also really unique. We have the supernatural (or the Eldritch as they’re called here) that can only exist without fading in places with a working underworld – places where a mighty supernatural being has taken up residence and created a zone where supernatural beings can exist in great numbers; in this case we have Hel. That in turn means the supernatural being sets the rules and power of the place – in this case the Norse goddess Hel who acts through her representative (Daisy) to keep her realm in order
In turn this creates an inherent vulnerability – the Eldritch are dependent on this location to exist and to thrive, making them both subject to Hel and exposed to human wrath – humanity, if sufficiently enraged, could dig out or drive off Hel, they could destroy the underworld and drive them out. This makes for a nice underlying conflict that unites the supernatural population. It also puts an extra edge on the problems of human bigotry and human public opinion, especially as the right wing is doing what it can to pass laws against the Eldritch and drive them out. It puts an edge on the PR battle.
I also like Daisy’s own struggle when added to this world. She’s the child of a demon (and I think it’s a bad idea to have used the term “incubus” because it suggests that the story is far more sex focused than it actually is) and that represents a constant source of temptation for her – because she has no power, or very little. But she could – at any time she can accept her birthright and have amazing power. Her demonic father is always lurking around waiting to pounce on her in a moment of weakness to offer her this legacy – and I like how that temptation is done; it’s not the usually sexy sexy lust, it’s a child being at risk, it’s facing the death of someone she cares about – it’s the temptation to gain power to defend the helpless. It’s a constant pressure and adds in to another interesting part of Daisy’s character – strong emotional states attract her father, tap into her power and tempt her to giving in which puts her in a difficult position. The world building complicates this by the fact her being demonic and on Earth could trigger an actual apocalypse.

It’s the foundation of a really excellent concept – a great world and a great plan for a character.
But… the execution doesn’t quite follow through. I don’t like Daisy, I just don’t. She feels quite childish and her word use feels just… immature and kind of lacking. I can take her lusting over Cody because he’s attractive, but there’s a bit of a whine there and the whole conflict between her and her best friend Jen over him felt completely unnecessary and pasted on.
Which is a shame because I think her friendship with Jen and her taking the time out to focus on Jen’s problems was really good. Her having an excellent female best friend, her having a brilliant relationship with her mother and an awesome older female friend in Lurline and even Mrs. Brown who lives in the same building with her – all of this is really good and unusual, a female protagonist who has such a strong network of female friends which makes the unfortunate presence of several rather 1 dimensional, pointless Mean Girls, much easier to swallow, albeit not justify.
I just can’t get on Daisy’s side – I just can’t grasp her character. She doesn’t seem to be expressly competent or skilled but Hel has made her liaison and I have no idea why. But that in turn also puts her in the centre of the investigation with, again, no apparent skill or reason.
I think the book, as the first book in a series and with a lot of world building to develop, was a little overly full. The investigation seemed to have a few too many red herrings and we had just a few too many sideplots – the Tourist board plot line, for example, was rammed in at the end of the book and got in the way of the conclusion. I think we spent a little too much time on Cody’s family. They weren’t bad plot lines, but they would be better in another book especially since the drowning and ghoul plotlines had so many layers and Jen’s introduction and family was so complex.
I mentioned there were several excellent female characters in this book, also with some unfortunate mean girls – many of whom are referred to in sexist terms and are dubious (“skanks” for example). But there are more good female characters than bad. Other marginalised issues are much shakier.
There is a lot of appropriation in this book. Cody is a werewolf who keeps it hidden from the general populace (in this weird semi-kinda-sorta Masquerade world) and this book constantly uses words like “closet” “out” and “down-low” to refer to him over and over again. This is just the tip of the iceberg - the appropriation is overwhelming in this book
Not only does it fail completely on the grounds that werewolves are not remotely analogous to LGBTQ people in terms of power, risk, danger and oppression – but also the way that Daisy treats Cody. One of the ongoing themes of this book is supposed to be Daisy feeling torn between loyalty to her best friend, and human, Jenn and following the codes and conventions of Eldritch society. That includes whether or not to tell Jenn that Cody is a werewolf. But this grossly misses the point – this isn’t about loyalty or rules, it’s about respect for Cody’s secret being his secret – his right to decide who knows about his life, not hers.
It’s not only a terrible analogy, but the way it is handled is appalling.
As to actual marginalised people – we have a gay wizard called Casimir The Fabulous. Yes really. He speaks with a classic inflection and repeatedly calls Daisy “dahling” and “Oh girl” and strikes poses.. He runs a shop, is seen twice during which he does nothing except complain about his competition and throw flamboyance around; it’s his sole purpose. Someone call the early 90s, one of their stereotypes has escaped and found a time machine.

Daisy herself is straight – she’s very clear about that. But supernatural women can use their woo-woo and apparently push her buttons which is depicted as both predatory (even if gently so with Lurline) and perverse (especially with her lusting after a Lamia’s snake coils) – she even calls it twisted.
For POC we have one of Stefan’s (chief ghoul) minor role sidekicks and Sinclair, a Black man who appears towards the end of the book. Sinclair feels very much dropped into this book with little planning and, consequently, little development. He touches on a few things – he fakes a strong Jamaican accent because gullible White people are more willing to pay attention to him, especially as a tourist guide, when he doesn’t sound like he’s American – basically he puts on a show for people who would otherwise dismiss him. He also mentions and snarks about the Magical Negro trope – but both seem kind of inserted and he doesn’t follow up on the rather random points he makes. I want to see where this character is actually going as it was something of a late-in-the-day addition
One of the villains of is mentally ill – and this is touched on, Daisy recognises the injustice of condemning her in her context which is rather better than most depictions of mentally ill murderous villains – but it’s still a mentally ill murderous villain, even if sympathetic.
This is a book that leaves me rather waffling because it has a lot of the ingredients that would make it a perfect book for me and there are elements of it I love – elements that will have me reaching for book 2 happily. But Daisy herself puts me off a good deal and because of her I just can’t love it.