Tuesday, October 3, 2017

War Demons: The Best Urban Fantasy Since Jim Butcher


Before I get into the review, I have some disclosing to do, and an apology to make. Russell Newquist came to me and offered me a free copy of this book specifically for this review, and I interact with him reasonably frequently on Twitter. As for the apology, this review is late as shit, and that's nobody's fault but mine. I'm a slow reader on a good day, but this is ridiculous, and I hope Russell will forgive me for not getting this up sooner. With that out of the way, let's get into my review of this book.

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, it's going to be a fairly glowing review. Not because Russell is a friend, and I should've had this up faster, but because I actually did enjoy the hell out of this book. So let's dive into a short plot synopsis to start things off.

After the death of his fiancee in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Michael Alexander joined the military to personally avenge her death. During his time in Afghanistan, his helicopter crashed, and he was attacked by a demon with a yellow nose. It ate his friend, and almost killed him, but he made it out, and now is home in Georgia, still unable to forgive himself for the death of Katie (his dead fiancee). He discovers that the demon has followed him in the possessed body of his dead friend, and then things get really out of hand when a wizard shows up with his pet dragon. 

And that should be enough to whet your appetite, so if you want the non-spoiler synopsis, there you go. That'll take you to about a quarter of the way through the book or so, while glossing over a whole shitload of important details. I'll try my best to keep further spoilers out of the review, but if you're looking for a short review with a recommendation right here: Go buy it, it's good stuff. It's $3 USD on kindle, and for as good as this book is you can't beat that with a stick. Here's the (non-affiliate) link to the book.

There's a 2-star review for this book on Amazon that says it "resembles a brainless action flick." While I agree that this book does indeed read like an action flick, it is anything but brainless. Maybe I'm the brainless one here, but this book threw me for a loop a couple times. Maybe I should back up.

It starts as a mystery, and then evolves into a full blown Die Hard With A Dragon action story. The first half of the book involves a very accurate portrayal of PTSD, Michael wrestling with his guilt over the death of Katie, and a search for knowledge about the yellow-nosed demon that ate his friend. Then, as I say, once the dragon shows up everything kind of goes to hell in a hand basket really fast. The change happened so fast it almost gave me whiplash. I don't know what I was expecting given the first half of this book, but it most definitely wasn't for a dragon to show up. At that point I kind of stopped trying to guess where this story was going and buckled in for the ride. 

The mystery side of things is presented very well. I have no understanding of how mysteries are written, but I love reading and watching them, and Michael's search for information constantly coming up with bupkis is an interesting one to follow. I think that in the transition from mystery to action book, a couple of loose ends weren't tied up. For example, I don't remember getting a conclusive explanation on the yellow-nosed demon revenant thing. Maybe I just missed it, but like I said before, I'm a slow reader. However, there are other books in this series, so I'll pick those up when I'm able and see if anything else gets explained. 

The action is just plain breakneck fucking awesome. When it gets rolling, it does not let up. I don't know how he kept up that level of intensity for the better part of 30 chapters, but he did, and I stand gobsmacked at how much I enjoyed it. The mystery bits are interesting, but slow in comparison to the rest of the book. It's as if it's building up speed, and then when it hits top speed it refuses to let up until we hit the conclusion. It really is like watching an action movie.

The characters are also all distinct, which is what any writer worth his salt does with his characters, but I feel it necessary to mention because I've read fiction where everyone sounds the same, and it's important to compliment good work when it makes itself apparent. And boy howdy does it in this. All of these characters are individuals with their own speech patterns and even accents. Sometimes there was a slip and, for instance, Connor (the Irishman) winds up sounding a little more American than he should, but those instances are few and far between. I loved all the characters in this book, to the point where I couldn't pick a favorite. Maybe Peter, but that would be for reasons I can't divulge to you because [S P O I L E R S  R E D A C T E D]. Just trust me, Peter's great. 

Now I feel is a good time to bring up the religiosity of the book. This book is capital letters CHRISTIAN. Catholic, specifically. Which makes sense, Russell is a Catholic, and his handling of the topic in this book is exquisite. I grew up Baptist (currently a godless atheist heathen), and I have some familiarity with Christian literature. Enough to tell you with some authority that most of it is just awfully written. There's no real saving the majority of it, because they're trying to preach a message, not tell a story.

Russell is here to tell a story. 

And he does so very well. The inclusion of the Catholic symbolism felt completely natural, and it serves the story rather than the other way around, thereby amplifying the message. It's not about to make a convert out of me, but respect and credit where it's due. Also, as an atheist who's read his fair share of anti-god science fiction and fantasy, it's refreshing to see someone tackle the topic without treating believers like morons, and without alienating atheists. At least if you're not the constantly ass-pained, arrogant, "I have to be a cunt to religious people at all times" kind of atheist. 

God is very real in this story, and most of the main characters are expressly Catholic. There's even a squad of holy knights straight from the Vatican, and they wound up being some of my favorite characters. It's not overbearing, it's simply there. Michael is Catholic, and trying to find peace, so it makes sense for him to attend Mass. The Vatican knights are, well, knights from the Vatican. Holy water hurts vampires (yes there are vampires in the story...well, kind of), a crucifix staves off the yellow-nosed demon revenant thing, and there's a crazy homeless prophet who shows up to make a nuisance of himself and deliver cryptic warnings. It's handled respectfully, it's not overbearing, and it's all in service of the overall story. When these characters pray, it's not because they feel like they have to pray before they do anything, it's because they need God's help. Usually due to the overwhelming presence of enemies in their immediate vicinity. If you want to know how to put Christian symbolism and plots into a book and have it not suck ass, read this and take serious notes. It's on the level of Dracula by Bram Stoker in that respect.

It was also refreshing to see a writer take a down to earth approach to social dynamics. The interactions feel natural, the men act like men, the women act like women, and it takes an honest look at how people actually interact with one another. In this day of Strong Empowered Women (with no actual personality) it's nice to see someone actually give the women in the story real motivations, and have them act like people instead of archetypes built on years of gender studies classes. Ordinarily something like this isn't worth mentioning, but the portrayal of the male dominance hierarchy and the female attraction to the guy at the top of it was very honest, and it surprised me when I got to the parts where Michael is interacting with his college peers. The characters are believable every step of the way, I even know people like some of them in real life, and I'd like to thank Russell for giving us real people with real motivations and real problems in his book. After all the Mary Sues and Gary Stu's I've had to put up with over the years, War Demons was like cold water to the face in this respect. 

If I had one problem with this book, it's that some of the action scenes in the second half feel a little flat. They're fighting wave after wave of "undead", and they just kind of cut through them with ridiculous ease, barely getting hurt. Which, I'm not saying that they have to be completely beat to shit and back before they fight the Big Bad, but some of the action scenes could've been fleshed out a bit better in my opinion. I don't need a punch-for-punch, bullet-for-bullet recap of the action, and in some scenes he gives exactly that, but the battle scenes seemed a bit flat in places. Then again, they are using modern weaponry on what amounts to zombies, and lots of these characters are combat veterans, so the almost glossing over of the thousandth zombie they kill can be completely forgiven with no lingering distaste.

And that's the only problem I had with this book. Well, that and not finding out what the yellow-nosed thing was. But really these are minor personal nitpicks that you may or may not find mildly annoying. Your mileage may vary, but you will in no wise be bored by this book. It has everything you could want out of a good urban fantasy story and then some. I wasn't exactly expecting it to take such a heavy religious bent, but as I say I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to not be there for messaging purposes, and thoroughly enjoyed every page. 

This has gone on for too long, so I'll wrap it up by saying that this is the most fun I've had with the urban fantasy sub-genre since I read Storm Front by Jim Butcher (in The Dresden Files series), and that's no kind of exaggeration. I'm seriously considering getting this one in paperback just so I can have it on my shelf and loan it out to people. The mystery is interesting, the action is straight out of a kick ass 80's movie, the characters are fun and personable, and the plot twists will knock your socks off. If that reviewer on Amazon is right, and it is "brainless" fun, then it's the best kind of brainless fun. 

My final verdict: Go buy it. The three dollars for the kindle version is well worth the price of admission, and if your tastes are anything like mine you'll have trouble putting it down once you actually start reading it.

And I once again apologize to Russell for the lateness of this review. Should there be a next one, it'll damn sure be up sooner. 

No comments :

Post a Comment