Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Book Review: "Blackout" by Rob Thurman

There really hasn't been a paranormal series that I have enjoyed as much Rob Thurman's Cal Leandros series. I can be a harsh critic of urban fantasy because the genre has already defined itself with a series of clich├ęs including snarky protagonists and monsters that induce romantic fantasies rather than nightmares. But Thurman's series about half-Auphe Cal and his human brother Niko worked for me because Cal had good reason to snark and the inventiveness of the series brought a freshness to a genre that seemed to quickly be collapsing under the weight of a glut of copycats trying to capitalize on the new hot thing. But, and I really hate to say this, after six books the series seems to be losing some steam as it succumbs to clunky writing and a seeming lack of ideas.

When Cal Landros wakes up on the beach in beginning of the aptly named Blackout he doesn't know he's a monster, but he does quickly realize that he is a monster-killer when he sees the bodies of several giant spiders lying in the sand and the knowledge that he's the reason for the carnage. And Cal's okay with that even though he can't remember anything else about who he is or where he comes from.

Fortunately Cal wakes up in the fairly idyllic town of Nevah's Landing where amnesiacs are taken in like strays in given work at the local restaurant without too many questions. But before Cal can settle in, his brother Niko shows up and Cal begins to realize he didn't know that much about monsters after all.

"Blackout" is a book that spends a lot of time inside the head of the amnesiac version of Cal Leandros and I haven't decided if that's a good place to be. I've always liked Cal but I'm not sure how much interaction I want with the innermost thoughts of a twenty-something guy and his thoughts about this size of his family jewels-- and Rob Thurman isn't so polite when it comes to how she refers to said jewels; which is kind of jarring when that happens more than once.

All kidding aside, "Blackout" is a big departure from what I've come to expect from this series  and different isn't always a good thing. Cal is a dark character. He has a rough history that shapes his character and it is interesting to see what kind of guy he would be without carrying all that baggage. But it becomes apparent after the first one-hundred pages or so that a reader can only handle so much introspection before you get a little bored. When I pick up a book by Rob Thurman I expect rapid-fire dialog, action and a wide variety of myth-based bad guys and "Blackout" kind of falls short on every level.

But if I had to point to one thing that I have to critique, it's the clumsiness of the writing. I did notice that the last book of the series, "Roadkill," didn't always have a flow that was easy for me to follow, but I didn't want to mention that in my last review because I was reading a review copy and I was sure that sort of thing would be ironed out before the final copy hit the shelves. Now I wonder. As I read "Blackout" I had a few moments where I would have to stop and fight my way through a paragraph to make sure I understood what we being said. At first I put this down to the stream-of-consciousness thing that goes on when you're reading a narrative based on someone's thoughts. But, as time went on, it became more distracting and that's when I started marking the pages so I could go back and quote passages like the one that follows-- with particular emphasis on the italicized portion.

      I was still tasting blood from the Wolf's kiss when we made it home. The tang didn't mix that badly with the wasabi mayonnaise, but it was still blood and we found more of the same waiting for us. The window hadn't been fixed yet...It was so high that getting anyone out there was going to be a pain in the ass. I saw learning glass replacement and where to find tall-ass ladders in NYC in my future.
     The blood would've been carried through that break in the glass...and rested in the eight hearts that had once contained them. I'd smelled it a block away--as little as it was, which was why Nik unlocked the door and then went through ahead of me with a sword drawn and an elbow in my gut to keep me back.

That's how the passage is written- exactly. I can't make heads or tails of it. When the writer speaks of the eight hearts that once contained "them" are we taking about blood being a "them?" I'm so confused. I read and re-read this over and over...and still don't get it. Is it me? If it seems as if I'm being nit-picky, let me just say that this wasn't the only sentence of dubious structure to show up. It was just the one that I chose to mention.

And that for me sums up my frustration with "Blackout." It just didn't feel like the earlier books. I like that Thurman chose to explore Cal's character, but a lot of what made the series great just isn't present here. I loved that little creatures like the bodach would find their way into the story in past books and scare the bejesus out of me. There is the requisite villain, but the character doesn't have much oomph. She's described very prettily, but has little depth. The loyalty between Cal and Niko is also still there, but I missed the shared knowledge between the two that forms the glue of so much of their story. In the end this books feels a little rushed between the choppiness of the writing and the predictability of the ending.

When you look at my review and compare it to what you seen on Amazon (mostly 5 star reviews so far) it's going to seem that I'm being unduly hard on "Blackout," but I don't think I am. From my view that simply means that readers have lower expectations when it comes to paranormal fiction and review accordingly. And maybe that's fair most of the time. But I personally think Thurman is a better author than this. She's proven that paranormal fiction doesn't have to be sweaty werewolves or preening vampires and for that reason I have set an uncommonly high standard for her. I'm sad that "Blackout" didn't work for me. I will give this series a chance to pick up the slack, but I fear that Thurman is trying to write too many books too quickly nowadays (three series'?) and the overall quality of the work is suffering. I'd still give the book 3 out of 5 stars for being better than most paranormal fiction, but still... I was hoping for more.

1 comment:

Versulas said...

I felt disappointed with this book, not because of the writing style (I must have read the whole thing in one go and was probably too tired to notice any jumbled paragraphs), but I'm simply not a fan of the amnesia route. Still liked it, just not nearly as much as the rest of the series.

It still had the dark humor and the gritty detail of the previous books, but my favorite character was off on a vacation inside his own head for pretty much the whole story...

It seems to be a trend though, since last book Thurman drastically limited Cal's powers, and then for most of this book decided to take them away completely. Cal used to be badass, sticking it to Sawney Beane and other villainous heavy-hitters... He was downright feral and smiling as he performed headshots. He was feared.

This time though, it was as if Cal had turned back into a kid needing Nik to protect him, whereas before he was just trying to keep Cal from killing too many people/monsters.

Here's to hoping the ending was a portent of things to come and the trend doesn't continue.