Christopher Rice is the son of best-selling fantasy writer Ann Rice, whose tales of vampires in the Deep South sparked a renewed interest in the genre—although, for my money, I thought George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream (6 years later) was a much better book than Interview With the Vampire. Be as that may, now we have Rice’s non-vampire dark fantasy, again set in the bayous of Louisiana and the post-Katrina streets of New Orleans. His new book (from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster) arrived on October 15, and I have to say that, despite a few weaknesses, I enjoyed it more than some of his mother’s works. It’s a fantasy, probably classifiable as a “horror” fantasy.
I’ve always had a kind of love/hate relationship with the Deep South; despite the fact that I’m a “damyankee” through and through, I spent nearly six of my formative years in the Florida panhandle (Panama City) before the Civil Rights movement came to town. The Florida I grew up in has been transformed and no longer exists, for which I’m grateful, but I still miss those hot days on the jetty at the beach, fishing for whatever came our way, the humid nights full of the smells of jasmine and honeysuckle, listening to ghost stories at Boy Scout camp in the woods, and so on. I don’t miss the humidity, the mosquitos, and some of the brain-dead racist people I had to go to school with and hear on the radio (which is why we used to listen to the New Orleans stations for our rock’n’roll—the local radio stations mostly played religious stuff).
So I read Florida- and Louisiana-set fiction because the better writers, like James Lee Burke, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Preston & Child and yes, even Ann Rice, can evoke those smells and sounds and the happy times I had as a kid in Florida. So given the opportunity to read yet another evocation of bayou days I jumped at it. Unfortunately for the author, the jacket blurb has more spoilers in it than I ever gave in a book review, so if you read jacket blurbs, you’ll probably be way ahead of the plot as you go through the book; a lot less information could have worked in favour of the plot, in my opinion. The book is told partly through a third-person POV but centering on several characters, and partly through a journal. The main characters are Niquette (Nikki) Delongpre, vanished and presumably dead—whose journal we read; her main squeeze Anthem Landry, their best friend and newspaper reporter Ben Broyard, bad guy Marshall Ferriott and, as a secondary but important character, Ben’s boss at The Kingfisher, Marissa Hopewell.
That last sentence actually shortcuts a number of timelines, but it’s not that important, as we are jumped back and forth in time by the author, which is how we learn important information about each character; information that shapes both the characters’ futures and their own… um, characters, if you’ll pardon me. Ben is gay, which is important to him, but maybe not so much to the plot. Or is it? Has Ben carried a torch for years for Anthem and/or Nikki? Anthem, though he comes from humble stock, is kind of a heroic figure; or is he? He certainly comes across as larger than life, not only physically—he’s bigger, when full grown, than most men—but as a figure in Ben’s (and Nikki’s) life. Nikki, though we keep seeing journal/diary entries from her, vanishes reasonably early in the book—and is presumably dead, along with her family, because their SUV crashed through a guardrail and disappeared into the waters of one of the bayous in the area. But the book jacket gives away the fact that she isn’t/may not be dead. Marshall becomes comatose/paralyzed early in the book. Or is he? There are many clues that may not give answers to these questions, unless you read a lot of SF and/or fantasy. Would a non-SF reader pick up on these clues?
I don’t know how a non-SF reader—let’s say a “mainstream” reader who picked this book up on the strength of the Rice name—would see these clues, because I’ve never not been an SF/fantasy reader. Suffice it to say that by the end of the first few chapters I think I was either way ahead of where the author wanted me to be… or right where the author hoped I would be.
A note on comic-book and super-hero “origin” stories. (Yes, this book involves “super” powers, not really defined as the standard ESP types, those of telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis or teleportation; this power’s effects are shown reasonably early, but never really named as one of the standard types.) Most origin stories have the superhero—or villain—bitten by a radioactive bug, bombarded by gamma rays, born with mysterious paranormal genetic abilities, etc. In the absence of real-world confirmation of super powers, we’re pretty sure that the above people would have a) a bug bite; b) died from radiation poisoning; and c) probably not lived to term or been born with physical abnormalities, as most genetic mutations are not viable. The origin story here is that drilling for water, to fill a swimming pool, in the bayou tapped a long-sealed chamber with something that has been shut off for millions of years, and can cause abilities to happen. Both Marshall and Nikki fall into that pool fairly early on. The description of how the so-called “parasites” in that water gave our characters powers is one of the worst and dumbest descriptions I have yet seen. And I have read a lot of comic book origin stories. But I digress.
We find out (through clues) pretty early that the “comatose” Marshall has some kind of mind power that can cause animals to self-destruct and people to kill themselves. He is a certified monster of some kind, but is locked away in a ward where he can’t (presumably) harm anyone. The book (and the jacket) also give away that Nikki might have gained the same powers as Marshall at the same time, due to the mysterious “parasites” in that swimming pool water… but Marshall tried to kill himself, and succeeded in killing his father and paralyzing himself. Are all these facts related?
What about Ben and Anthem and Marissa? Marissa, though older than Ben—and the only black figure in the book—takes some kind of “maternal” interest in Ben; she knows he’s gay, so it can’t be sexual, and besides, she’s much older than he—as well, she’s tried to set him up on dates with the few men who she knows are gay. Anthem, though he believes Nikki is dead, is still besotted with her. There’s a weird kind of a 5-way “triangle” going on here. How that is all resolved is the crux of the book. So in order to avoid further spoilers, I need to leave that here.
Did I enjoy the book? Yes, I did. There was enough of a Louisiana ambience there to satisfy me, although it wasn’t as good at evoking “place” as your standard James Lee Burke, who’s a master at that—at least where Louisiana is concerned. Was it a well-told story? Yes, it was. It was well enough told that I kept reading—and these days, because I’ve read so much bad fiction, I tend to stop reading when fiction exasperates me. Was it a good book by either genre or literary standards? It was… good enough. It won’t have the popular appeal of Interview With the Vampire, but if you enjoy the Gideon books by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, it’s at least that good; the action keeps moving, the characters—save Marshall’s—are reasonably appealing, and the “super” stuff is at least superficially explained and delineated (though the explanation, as I said, leaves a lot to be desired). Marshall’s character, though a thoroughgoing bad guy, isn’t as well portrayed as, say, some of Dean Koontz’s bad guys; and Marissa, though she plays a key role in Ben’s life, should have been fleshed out more.
(To tell more about why it wasn’t completely well done would be to add spoilers. There are reasons I can’t say this was very good or excellent, but I would have to say more than I’m willing to.) All in all, I think it’s a book I might have bought on my own. Which is recommendation enough for me.
Next week I expect to break my own rule and provide spoilers when I review a stinker of a movie purporting to be SF.
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