Book Review: Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

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After seeing what felt like the 1,000th tweet about this book, I finally gave in and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll buy the fricking book!” Reinforcement of the lesson for all aspiring authors – promotion pays.
Anybody who reads this blog regularly (hi, you two!) knows what’s coming since I don’t review books that I think are bad. Yep, it’s a good one. Daniel Jose Older seems to be a fairly new author, and I am ever so excited about his books.

HRB is billed as being the first in the Bone Street Rumba series, which is great news because it means we’ll see more of Carlos Delacruz, an “inbetweener,” straddling the line between being alive and dead. Outwardly, this means he’s a little grey and has a very slow heartbeat, but he can walk down the street without anybody becoming alarmed. As for how he got that way, he doesn’t really know. He has no memory of how he died, he just knows that it was violent and that a ghost, his friend Riley, saved him and helped to bring him half way back.

Now Carlos works for The Council of the Dead, a bureaucratic group of ghosts who keep the supernatural community in line – sending Carlos out to hunt those who need to die the real death (i.e. be obliterated) for causing trouble in the living world. The Council sends Carlos to kill another inbetweener, the first he has ever seen besides himself. The job leads Carlos to discover a wider conspiracy to tear down the barrier between the dead and the living. Along the way, he becomes infatuated with beautiful and mysterious Sasha, but is she an innocent pawn or one of the players?

So obviously, totally cool plot, but that’s not the best thing here. Older’s writing is top notch, leaving me wondering how damned good he’s going to be a few years from now. The dialog between characters is fast and edgy. He has a way of seamlessly telling us what Carlos is thinking followed quickly by what he actually says (not at all the same thing, in many cases) that is just plain cool and enjoyable. His characters are slick and the relationships between them are as complicated and fraught as one might expect for a guy who is only half alive and kills for a living.

The other thing I love about this story is that Carlos isn’t entirely a good guy. Not 100% antihero, but he does some shameful things. He doesn’t do them with malice, he feels bad about them later, but he does screw up in ways that cause damage. He’s a supernatural being who manages to be painfully human and relatable. It was one of those books that, faced with only 100 or so pages left, I wanted to read slower to draw it out.

I saw on Twitter that he’s already working on the next one…can’t wait!

Book Review: Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk

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For many years, getting a new McDevitt was kind of like getting a pile of gold. “Gasp! For me? Thank you!” His stories were gripping. His characters were brave, intelligent, competent – damned likeable.

A typical McDevitt had characters embarking on some sort of mission or project only to have something go terribly wrong or to discover something world-changingly significant or both at the same time, like finding evidence of intelligent life on a planet that was about to explode…on which the unfortunate characters had somehow become trapped. The characters would have to figure out an ingenious way of getting out of whatever mess they were in that took every ounce of ingenuity and courage they had. These books were can’t-put-it-down, turn-the-page-faster, action sci-fi brilliance.

In recent years, it seems to me that McDevitt’s books have become…tamer. Still a good read, still books I was interested in buying…but they seemed to have lost something. With the switch from main character Captain Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins to antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick Chase Kolpath, there was far more talking and going out to dinner than figuring out how to get five people off a planet that was about to explode. Alex and Chase generally had a mystery on their hands and there was often some kind of peril. But it was never anything as harrowing or edge-of-your-seat gripping like the Hutch books or his early non-Hutch books like Moonfall, Eternity Road, and Ancient Shores.

With Starhawk…Hutch…and McDevitt are back. Not perhaps all the way back…but we’re getting close. Starhawk tells an early Hutch story. Before she got her nickname, before she had any of her adventures, before she was even taken seriously by the people who would later count on her for their most difficult missions.

Hutch is a brand new pilot. In fact, she’s on her final testing run to get certified, when something goes wrong. She and her mentor are called upon to divert from their testing flight to rescue a ship full of young girls on a space school trip. This gives us a delicious taste of the old Hutch books with problems that seem to have no solution. The pain and suffering that ensues give an interesting background for what we know from other books are Hutch’s later refusals to give up or sacrifice anyone, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Once this first experience is under her belt, the book sadly tames up as Hutch looks for a job and experiences her first professional disappointments. While we do learn a lot about Hutch’s early life, we don’t get a lot of adventure. This is not to say that we don’t want to know these things. In fact, McDevitt does a great job of describing what it can be like for a newbie, particularly a female one, making her way through the old-boys network in the dick-swinging world of space pilots. The fact that she’s pretty gets remarked upon with annoying frequency by those (male and female) who she encounters in her job. When young Hutch sticks her neck out to try to do what’s right, she gets labeled as “emotional” by her superior. All too familiar for professional women everywhere and it’s refreshing to see a male author with the ability to describe these things in a way that feels genuine.

While I initially despaired that the rest of the book would remain tame, it turns out that McDevitt was setting us up for a final adventure and we’re treated to another McDevitt nail-biter before the book ends. This was a well-written surprise, but it left me wanting more. It made me long anew for the old McDevitts, full of Hutch in her prime. Her career as a pilot must have held more adventures that we can enjoy. I doubt McDevitt will ever write a bad book, but we know there is so much more to be had. I can only hope that we get more stories like the old ones. Until then I will, of course, buy anything the man writes…but c’mon Jack! We know you’ve got the goods!  Bring us on another adventure!