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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

"Already Dead", "No Dominion" + "Half the Blood of Brooklyn" by Charlie Huston

Official Charlie Huston Website
Order “Half the Blood of BrooklynHERE
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After finishing “The Shotgun Rule” (Reviewed HERE), I knew that I wouldn’t be able to wait very long before starting another Charlie Huston novel. At first though, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do next—go back to the beginning of Charlie’s career and read his Henry Thompson trilogy (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things, A Dangerous Man) or start on his currently ongoing Joe Pitt series. That decision was made for me when I heard that a new Joe Pitt novel was coming out this December. With that resolved and all three books in hand, all I had to figure out now was how to do the review. Initially I thought I’d keep things simple and just review each book separately like normal, but then I thought it would be so much more fun to read them all back-to-back-to-back and write one huge review... So, I went with Plan B :)

1)Already Dead” – December 2005 (268 pages). Going in, I was super-confident that this series was going to be right up my alley and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. For starters, that same unflinching Tarantino-esque dialogue, urban vernacular and stylized violence that I loved so much from “The Shotgun Rule” were on display here in all of its explicit glory. Even better, there was a much more pronounced noir influence—Joe’s first-person narrative, crime / mystery subplots, a frequent use of flashbacks, Manhattan’s seedy underworld setting—running in the book and I absolutely love noir! You know what I love even more though…vampires. And that’s the defining gimmick in “Already Dead”. Joe Pitt, a fairly typical blend of resident fall guy and sardonic bad-ass, is a Vampyre…

Vampirism remains one of the more popular concepts in the world of fiction be it film, literature, television or videogames. Unfortunately the novelty has somewhat worn off over the years because more times than not, the same ideas are just being recycled over & over. What I like about Charlie’s Vampyres is that they’re a mix of old and new ideas, resulting in a mythology that is at once familiar, yet refreshingly edgy. So, on the one hand you have such recognizable traits as the need to drink human blood—animal blood doesn’t seem to work though; a fatal weakness against sunlight; enhanced senses, strength & speed; rapid healing; and immortality…of a sort. At the same time, these Vampyres are immune to garlic and holy water; they can see their reflection; and as Joe demonstrates throughout the novel, they can eat food; smoke, drink enough to get a buzz; have sex; and get beaten up, knocked out cold, poisoned and even killed much like any normal human—though it is a bit tougher ;). There’s also the little matter of the Vyrus which is what turns people into Vampyres in the first place and is a pretty interesting concept though not much is known about it, except starving the Vyrus seems to have some nasty side effects. What I liked best though, was the Vampyres’ differing philosophies.

Basically, in Manhattan there’s about nine million humans compared to four thousand Vampyres. So, with numbers like that stacked up against you, opinions tend to vary about how the Vampyres should be living their lives and as a result, different clans are formed. The largest and most powerful of these Clans is the mafia-like Coalition which preaches invisibility and are said to control “a vast & secret supply of blood”. Then there’s the more liberal-thinking Society who wants to unite all of the Clans and go public. And then there’s the Buddha-like Enclave who live a life of 'meditation & martial arts', starving them selves in the pursuit of the metaphysical and possess extraordinary abilities. There are other Clans as well along with Rogues who try to make it on their own, but those three are the important ones, at least in this story. You see, Joe is more or less a Rogue who’s been playing the sides of all three Clans. Normally he’s got things under control, but when a routine Zombie problem that needs taking care of in his neighborhood turns ugly, the shit starts hitting the fan. First, he’s got Coalition breathing down his neck to make sure he fixes the problem quietly; then he’s got the Society all up in his face because some of the members think he’s a Coalition spy; and finally he’s being pressured by the Enclave to join their clan. To make matters worse, Joe can’t find the Zombie carrier who’s been infecting people; he’s lied to the Coalition which could mean execution—stakes & sunrise style; and he’s been hired to help a rich, powerful & influential human couple find their runaway Goth girl with the wife & husband each having their own agenda. If that’s not enough, someone’s trying to set him up; his precious blood supply has been stolen; a deadly ghost-like Wraith is on the prowl; and Joe’s relationship with his human girlfriend is on the rocks. No, the future does not look at all bright for Mr. Joe Pitt

So that’s “Already Dead” for you. It was all that I was hoping for and then some—great characters, a crazy story, kick-ass dialogue, a vivid setting. You have to give the author credit. Opening volumes in a series can be tricky, but Charlie handles it with ease. I mean the book grabs you from the very first page; it does an excellent job of establishing the milieu, Joe’s character, his supporting cast and explaining the different clans, Vampyres, etc., without force-feeding the info to you; and while the story is all wrapped up with a neat little bowtie, it definitely leaves you thirsting for more. All in all, just a fantastic way to kick off the series…

2) "No Dominion" – December 2006 (251 pages). It’s been a year since the fallout at the end of “Already Dead” and Joe’s been taking it easy, staying out of trouble. After all, when the Coalition’s spymaster Dexter Predo and the Society’s head of security Tom Nolan are out for your blood, it’s probably best to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, Joe’s blood stash is running low, jobs have been scarce, and he’s just learned from his HIV-positive girlfriend Evie that her disease has taken a turn for the worse. So he does the only thing he can think of—go back to his old pal Terry Bird, the leader of the Society, and ask for a little help. What he gets is a clandestine mission to find out about some new “high” called Anathema that is specifically for Vampyres. As one might expect if you know anything of noir, what starts out as a simple reconnaissance becomes dangerously complicated as Joe finds himself caught in a brewing turf war between the Hood, Coalition and the Society. In short, “No Dominion” is basically a novel about “setups and betrayals and backstabbing and power plays…”

Charlie’s second Joe Pitt casebook was a little different from the first one. For starters, it has a little slower beginning, but once Joe hops on that A train watch out! From there, the book really picks up the tempo as Joe finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the Hood’s DJ Grave Digga & Papa Doc; then he’s ensnared by the vicious Lady Vandewater who’s working on a devious scheme to incite a war between the clans; which leads back to the Society, a Coalition plot and a coup attempt. Personally, I love this kind of storytelling—all of the tangled threads, red herrings, double crosses and unexpected revelations… Highly entertaining :) I will admit though that the book was a bit light in the action department compared to “Already Dead”, and that it seemed to spend a lot of time at the end explaining what exactly just happened. I guess it was a little complicated, but still. Aside from all of the political maneuvering, there was actually other stuff going on in “No Dominion”. One was the subplot with Joe’s girlfriend Evie, which I mentioned earlier. Nothing much really happens in the book regarding this, but I think it’ll be a major issue in the next Joe Pitt novel. Of more significance was the actual Vyrus. We get to learn a bit more about it like how it only infects certain “straights” (normal people), and how there might be some truth to the Enclave’s belief that the Vyrus is spiritual in nature. It’s definitely an interesting concept and I can’t wait to see where Charlie goes with it… And that about sums up “No Dominion”. The book was just as enjoyable as the first Joe Pitt novel, if for different reasons, and left a little more hanging than its predecessor, but Charlie Huston once again delivers…

03)Half the Blood of Brooklyn” – December 26, 2007 (240 pages). So far Joe has had some pretty wild adventures and along the way he’s proven time and again to be one tough SOB. Still, even a tough SOB has a breaking point and in “Half the Blood of Brooklyn” we get to learn first-hand just what that breaking-point is. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Starting back at the beginning, another year has gone by and during that time Joe has firmly resumed his role as enforcer for Terry Bird and the Society. Life should be good right!? I mean Joe’s got a steady gig now which means Clan protection, not having to hunt for his own blood, and an income that he can use to pay for his girlfriend’s treatments. Ah, but this is Joe Pitt we’re talking about here, professional shit-magnet. So trouble’s just a stone’s throw away. First, the Clans discover that the world’s a much larger place than their little island of Manhattan when Vampyres start crossing the bridge from Brooklyn causing all sorts of political turmoil. Then, an apparent Van Helsing—nickname for a “righteous hunter of the undead”—shows up committing a murder that brings Coalition into the picture. Also back on the scene is the soon-to-be-filthy-rich Horde Bio Tech Incorporated heiress Amanda Horde, her transsexual lover/protector Sela, and their noble idea of developing a cure for the Vyrus. Which brings us to the most important matter in the book, at least to Joe. You see Evie, Joe’s HIV-positive girlfriend, is failing and the only way to save her is by using the Vyrus. Here’s the dilemma though—not only is it morally wrong to essentially trap Evie in a life that is as vicious & bleak as the one Joe lives, but it’s illegal under penalty of death and not everyone can accept the Vyrus in the first place, and those who reject it, well, they die…horribly. Fortunately for Joe, there’s one Vampyre who can actually tell if a straight will be able to accept the Vyrus or not—Daniel, the leader of the Enclave. Unfortunately, time’s running out for Daniel and before Joe can even ask the question to the answer he so desperately seeks, he’s sent on a mission into the heart of Brooklyn where things really get out of hand, all leading to an explosive finale where no one, not the Brooklyn vampyres, not the Society, not the Enclave, not friends nor straights—no one will stand in Joe’s way as he tries to save the girl he loves…even if it means war…

Charlie’s Joe Pitt casebooks is one of those rare series that just keeps getting better and better, and “Half the Blood of Brooklyn” was easily the best so far. I mean, if you think about it, the first two books are mainly establishing what kind of a Vampyre Joe is and his various relationships, laying down the groundwork for the Clans’ political structure, deciphering their opposing philosophies, and just basically realizing Charlie’s unique vampyre mythology. Sure, all of that was usually rooted in some great storytelling, but essentially, it was a lot of worldbuilding. “Half the Blood of Brooklyn” is the start of the payoff. The world’s basically been established, so characters are evolving, conflicts are coming to a head, and Joe’s finally making a stand for something he truly believes in…and it’s sadistically magnificent. Plus, how crazy is Charlie’s imagination? Already he’s doing stuff with the vampire mythos that hasn’t been seen before, and then he goes and introduces the Freaks—a group of Vampyres that put their abilities on display as a circus act—and a clan of Jewish Vampyres who believe themselves descended from the lost Tribe of Gibeah! Bloody brilliant! A couple of notes though. First, I thought readers would have no problem following what was happening in “No Dominion” even if they hadn’t read the first Joe Pitt novel. That’s not the case here. I highly recommend that you read both “Already Dead” and “No Dominion” before starting this one, especially since a lot of characters/subplots—Amanda Horde, The Count, Lydia, Daniel, Evie—from those books play such an important role here in “Half the Blood of Brooklyn”. And secondly, prepare yourself for a cliffhanger. While the first two books were more or less self-contained stories, “Half the Blood of Brooklyn” is more of a set-up novel, and thus, leaves you dangling. So yeah, next December can’t come fast enough, but fortunately “Half the Blood of Brooklyn” was so mind-blowingly good, I’m still trying to catch my breath!

Conclusion: Looking back, I guess you could probably lump Charlie’s Joe Pitt casebooks with the other urban fantasy novels out there. After all, it does have that first-person POV, a contemporary setting and the supernatural elements… Then again, the closest comparison I could come up with was Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, and maybe traces of Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series or Jim Butcher’s popular Dresden Files, but even those pale in comparison to Charlie’s more hardcore series. In other words, with its extreme violence, explicit language and fearless racial/gender epithets, Joe Pitt is not for the squeamish or the politically correct. And for those who haven’t read any Charlie Huston novels yet, there are two little quirks to be aware of… 1) The author doesn’t use any chapter or part breaks in the Joe Pitt novels, and 2) Charlie also doesn’t use any quotation marks with the speech denoted by hyphens. So, if you can look past all of that then you’re in for one hell of a treat, cuz if Quentin Tarantino is the king of all that is hip and postmodern in contemporary filmmaking, then Charlie Huston is well on his way to securing the throne in the world of urban crime fiction…


Lawrence said...

Thanks for the review/overview, I am really looking forward to Half the Blood of Brooklyn, to see if it lives up to expectations! :)

chrisd said...

I see you're reading Jeffrey Overstreet's book. Let me know when you post a review. I'll link it on my blog; CSFF is doing a blog tour with that book, coming up, I think in January.

SQT said...

I bought "Already Dead" awhile back but hadn't read it due to other books I had to get to first. It seems I need to squeeze this one in.

Kendall said...

A third flaw (for me, anyway): Written in present tense. But the biggest flaw for me is the unusual typographical convention...his editor was crazy to use em dashes instead of standard quotation marks.

Robert said...

Lawrence, I don't think you'll be disappointed!

Chris, I actually just finished reading/reviewing "Auralia's Colors" and absolutely loved it :) I probably won't be posting the review until January though, but I'll keep you posted...

Theresa, the book is definitely worth looking at. If you enjoy it, I'd recommend picking up the other two and reading them back-to-back ;)

Kendall, thanks for the thoughts! I actually liked the present tense. Gives the books a sense of immediacy. As far as the hyphens, I'm not sure about this, but I think it's like this with all of his books. At leas it was with The Shotgun Rule...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews. Huston's third installment of the Joe Pitt series is great as usual, and I have to agree, is the best one yet. Also I've just started up a Charlie Huston group up on Yahoo! groups if anyone is interested in chatting about the series or other related topics. Here's the url:

Robert said...

Anonymous, you're welcome for the review and thanks for the heads up on your Charlie Huston Yahoo! group. I'll see if I can't stop by :) Happy New Year!

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