Thursday, October 1, 2015

In the Still of the Knight (Black Knight Chronicles #5) by John G Hartness

It seemed like another series of supernatural murders to investigate – young people aged and left for dead. Definitely a job for Greg, James and Sabrina.

But they stumble on to a major secret under the city – and James’s life is suddenly riven by dangerous, tragic and difficult conflicts. How far will he go for what is right? Who will he save, and what will he pay to save or avenge?

There’s no easy choices and maybe no good choices.

This book took the series to a decidedly dark place. This series has always had excellent action, a whole lot of zany fun and a very wide world setting – but it has generally been light, fun, jokey. Even when it did try to go dark, it never went that dark, at least not for long. Whackiness normally ensues and overwhelms

This book takes the whole series into a very new direction. I think of this book as the one where James has to grow up – where he faces a lot of conflicts that cannot be easily overcome – not just because there are bad guys to face, but because the conflicts are not just against bad guys you can stab or beat up until they give up. The conflicts are between James and his friends.

Between James and Abbie, James and Greg and even James and Sabrina we have a lot of heartbreaking conflict. Storywise, this drives James to the very edge and pushes him further than I ever expected him to go and puts him in a very different place at the end of the book. He’s harder, stronger and never more powerful – but also never more alone.

The conflicts with his friends and loved ones are especially good because they are difficult to unravel. In each case even when someone is wrong (such as Greg, who is very very wrong about wanting to turn someone into vampire against their will), their anger still comes from a very real place. Yes Greg is wrong, but his emotion, his rage is understandable and, in turn, that makes it all the harder for me to see how the relationship can be bridged

With Sabrina it’s more complex because both James and Sabrina are right and wrong. Her job, as a police woman, is to protect the people of the city. As such she sees the battle as protecting people from monsters – but what about when the people (and especially the police) have been infiltrated by the monsters? And what about when James sympathises with the “monsters” and not the police who are being used by the monsters? What if to save monsters he considers innocents, he has to hurt people Sabrina considers innocent? This is especially complex when we have those police, unlike nameless guards everywhere, actually being people with families and Sabrina objecting to a super powerful vampire tearing through them and sending them to hospital.

Neither of them are wrong. Neither of them are right. Which makes for an especially difficult and meaty conflict- because it’s a conflict where neither side is likely to be legitimately sorry and not because they’re stubborn or mean- but because they’re not wrong.

Much meatier and much darker than I normally expect from this series.

In terms of character development, Abbie, Lillith and Sabrina step up in awesomeness – but there’s no surprises there. Abbie and Sabrina had always been skilled and were extremely good at putting James in his place. Whether it’s because of the increasing darkness, there did seems to be a lessening of the pointless sexualisation that so often dogged these characters. Not a complete removal, but a definite reduction.

I also really liked the concept of the Morlocks. Vampires are, almost by definition in fiction, cool, attractive, suave and classy. But what about all those vampires who aren’t? It’d be easy to create a world where that doesn’t happen – but we can clearly see from Greg and James that this isn’t so. Besides, usually when you have a culture that is that rigid it comes from active exclusion and so we see the Morlocks – the vampires who are not sexy or classy or impressive, banding together, beneath notice. It’s a nice point, especially since they are led by Alexis who I quite liked. The downside is that I think they were just a plot device to be discarded and move the characters on.

On a less excellent side, we still get far far far too many mentions of Greg’s weight in insulting terms. It’s so unnecessary. But the aversion, I guess, is that while Greg’s size is constantly unnecessarily mentioned, it’s also clear that he is stronger and smarter and more dangerous than the thin James.

We have a very brief appearance from Sabrina’s gay cousin (and more less-than-ideal semi-jokes about the gay fairies). Sabrina’s boss is also a POC, but while he’s more present I don’t think we have that much actual presentation of his personality or character since he’s very much an extension of his boss, Tiram.

I am also slightly frustrated by the plot – it’s not bad exactly, but it gets from place to place with some pretty stretchy writing. Not least of which, it requires James to both identify with the Morlocs, loses any sense of his own survival and make vast and, frankly, kind of ridiculous assumptions in order to move the plot in the right direction. There’s also a pretty hefty Deus Ex going on there. I think the author knew where he wanted the book to go and wasn’t all that able to get the story to there.

I am really curious about the next book – this series has taken such a sharp turn that I have no idea how it will develop. I also am curious and slightly nervous about the change. After all, I really like this series – but I like it as a whacky, zany romp of geeky vampires who frequently get themselves into more trouble than their silliness can handle. So James becoming dark and deadly, his light and hilarious friendships are all broken and serious and adult is a huge turn from what I loved about these books. Now that doesn’t mean this is going to be terrible, it doesn’t mean that this series won’t still be awesome in an entirely different way though, but it is a huge change.