Urban fantasy is a mixed-breed animal. Horror, dark fantasy, romance, hard-boiled detective fiction, police procedural – urban fantasy pairs them off, lets them get comfy, and then births its own unique lineages of weird offspring.
Arguably, paranormal romance falls at one end of the spectrum, with the romance interest taking centre stage and your usual posse of ab-licious wolf-boys and hunky vampires lining up to woo (let’s be diplomatic here) the protagonist. But if paranormal romance is at one end of the urban fantasy playing field, then under the bleachers at the other end is R.S. Belcher’s Nightwise.
Nightwise the red-headed stepchild of the hard-boiled detective novel, Lovecraftian and weird fiction, superhero comic books, the crime caper (although Ocean’s Eleven this ain’t), and good ol’ pappy Grimdark his own self. Nightwise even acknowledges its heritage with several sly winks. The protagonist, Laytham Ballard, quotes Chandler at several points, wears an Alan Moore t-shirt, and actually uses the word “caper” in the appropriate section of the novel.
Laytham is the quintessential grimdark protagonist. He’s morally ambiguous to the core, a man who wants to be a hero, but only succeeds at being a villain. He’s not a good man who does bad things, nor is he a bad man who wishes to do good things. He simply is who he is, a man who’s said to have raised the dead at the age of ten, stolen the Philosopher’s Stone back in Vegas in ‘99, and survived the blood sucking kiss of the Mosquito Queen. Although, granted, his moral compass hasn’t been helped by the fact he’s also lost part of his soul in one of those shady occult deals the Brothers Grimm have been warning folks about for centuries.
Laytham is also an initiate into “the Life,” the magical underworld. A bit of a rudderless fellow, he’s found a cause in seeking vengeance on Dusan Slorzack, the man who raped, tortured, and murdered his old buddy’s missus. His old buddy, Boj, used to be a smack dealing king of the underworld, and Laytham was his right-hand man. But now Boj is dying from AIDS and Laytham is trying to do right by his old friend the only way he knows how – by dealing out the pain on Slorzack. Except Slorzack is an enigma, a shadow, and as Laytham follows the trail of bodies he begins to realise that he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Not only are the secret masters of the not-so-free world, the Illuminati, apparently involved, but Slorzack has gotten involved with some arcane magic known only as the “Greenway”. Whatever mystery project Slorzack is helming, it’s involved him working in the shadows for decades, orchestrating super-sized human sacrifices, and delighting in being the sort of villain that makes even a guy like Laytham seem like a choir boy.
Pursuing Slorzack with occult magic, his wits, and his fists, Laytham carves his way through occult New York, a place of murder clubs, BDSM dungeons, and homicidal deities. Along the way he ropes in the members of his old crew, including an elderly Japanese “gun saint”, and a transgender Australian shaman. Belcher does a fine job of walking that tight rope between humour and grittiness, and there really is a geeky comic book talent to how Belcher weds the wacky elements with graphic violence. In one scene Laytham invokes a magical marijuana deity, but it’s essentially played straight, no breaking the fourth wall and winking at the reader and saying, “This is all a bit ridiculous.” And when the said deity of bud is the catalyst of a heap of bone-breaking violence, the violence pulls no punches.
Sure, Laytham snorts stolen coke, bribes people with smack, and his actions often result in the deaths of the innocent, but you forgive him because there’s a perverse logic to what he does, and deep down we all know we’d never be as morally courageous as the Hollywood hero who turns his back on the whipped-cur villain and pronounces his debts settled. A large part of how Belcher manages to make Laytham sympathetic is through Laytham’s interior voice. One of the peculiar things about urban fantasy is the way first-person with a strong, lively interior voice has become the default. I guess it all goes back to Anita Blake’s punchy catch phrases. Unfortunately, so many urban fantasy novels seem to feel like they’re channelling Anita Blake in one way or another, and their interior voices are peppered with nauseous one-liners that are meant to sound cool but instead sound juvenile.
Not so with Nightwise. Here’s a sample of Laytham’s interior voice.
“Houdini on meth with Aleister Crowley’s cock in his back pocket couldn’t have gotten in there without being noticed, nabbed, and nailed.”
I like it. I like it very much.
How can you not like a guy who throws out those lines?
Nightwise balances expertly over the chasm between humour and horror, never becoming so clever that the horror and grimness fades away, never becoming so unrelentingly dark that all hope is lost. So, if you want to try something grimdark that isn’t your typical fantasy setting, then give Nightwise a try.
Me, I’ll be heading out and grabbing Belcher’s new one, The Brotherhood of the Wheel.
Or on Kindle from Amazon: