Monday, March 01, 2010

Morris and Chastain!

Our books today are Black Magic Woman (Solaris, 2008) and Evil Ways (Solaris, 2009), the first two installments in the ongoing adventures of Quincey Morris and Libby Chastain, two paranormal investigators who face off against ‘black magic’ and the supernatural in all its myriad forms. This will sound like a well-worn premise – fans of The Dresden Files, for instance, will recognize it immediately (they’ll also recognize the book’s covers, which are done by Dresden Files vet Chris McGrath – not to begrudge McGrath any of the five dozen commissions he’s got going at any one point, but if sci-fi/fantasy publishers were occasionally to not use him, their authors might have less of an ‘interchangeable’ factor to fight against). TV shows like The X-Files and Supernatural and True Blood (and their venerable ancestors, including the great Night Stalker and the underrated Kindred) have worked their own magic in creating a genre where more or less ordinary people work side-by-side with the occult world.

In these books, Quincey Morris would be the ordinary person – although he’s anything but ordinary in the ordinary sense of the word, being tough as nails and very cool under pressure (in the wonderful set piece that opens Evil Ways, he takes on an entire clutch of vampires that have infested a small Texas hotel, and you get a visceral sense of how good Morris is in a tight corner – and a sly tip of the hat from Gustainis, whose conceit is that his Morris is a direct descendant of Bram Stoker’s ill-fated Dracula-hunting Quincey Morris). He’s joined by ‘white witch’ Libby Chastain, another distinctly idiosyncratic fictional creation who spends a good deal of her time explaining the difference between her kind of witch and the bad kind (for all the world like nobody in these books had ever seen The Wizard of Oz)(or Bewitched, for that matter):
“White magic derives its power from nature,” Libby told him. “From the four essential elements of earth, air, fire, and water, as well as from the sun and moon.”

“Is all that a fancy way of saying ‘from God?’” LaRue asked.

Libby thought for a moment. “Well, it can be – although some of us might use other terms, including ‘Goddess.’”

“And if you want to posit God as the source of white magic,” Morris said, “it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where the other side comes from.”

“No, I suppose not,” LaRue said. He looked at Libby Chastain and asked, “Which is the stronger?”

There’s no easy answer to that question, of course (or these would be mighty short books), but you can see the snap and pace of Gustainis’ prose – that prose is the real secret behind these books; most supernatural thrillers (hell, most sci-fi and fantasy just in general) are flatly, horribly written and don’t care if you know it – they figure if they deliver their requisite cargo of blood, guts, and demons, they’ve done their job and should be allowed to collect their paycheck. In this they take their cue from mainstream thriller writers like James Patterson and his ilk, whose books are mere plot-skeletons, delivery devices for climaxes and cheesy one-liners, not really books at all.

Gustainis doesn’t got that route, and as a result, even his book’s throwaway scene-settings are often memorably good:
Not unlike Caesar’s Gaul, all American college towns are divided into three parts. There’s the campus itself, usually a sprawling mass of concrete and brick (except in New England, where its usually wood, ivy, and rot), the jungle (where the students tend to reside and recreate), and the town (where the permanent residents live – usually as far away from the campus and the jungle as they can get).

Another refreshing aspect of these books – let’s hope it stays strong as the series continues – is the depth and complexity given to the non-supernatural side of every investigation, specifically the efforts of the FBI’s behavioral sciences teams out of Quantico, usually headed by recurring character Agent Fenton (whose persistent, completely uncontrolled potty mouth is just about the only false note the author strikes in any of this – you simply won’t find an FBI field agent who talks that way around the general public, but it’s a small point). Gustainis signals at every turn that wants this side of his mostly-paranormal investigations to be both realistic and tautly gripping in its own right, and at one point he does this signaling in the manner most likely to grab the attention of police procedural buffs: he invokes God – i.e. Thomas Harris. Quincey Morris asks if Jack Crawford is still in charge of behavioral sciences for the FBI at Quantico.

He’s told Crawford died of a heart attack a while back. But the fight against crime – natural or otherwise – goes on, and if Will Graham and Clarice Starling aren’t available, Quincey Morris and Libby Chastain will do in a pinch.


Justin Gustainis said...

Thanks for the kind words, Steve. It's always good to find someone who enjoys my work -- I wish there were 100,000 or so more of you.
The third Quincey/Libby book, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, has been delayed by the sale of Solaris, my publisher, by parent company Games Workshop, to Rebellion Games. But it should see print in 2011.
FWIW, I recently turned in to Angry Robot Books (a new imprint of HarperCollins) HARD SPELL, the first in the "Haunted Scranton" series I'm doing for them. It's set in one of those alternate universes where everybody knows about the supernatural (I don't pretend it's an original concept), but focuses on Scranton, PA. The protagonist is Detective Sergeant Stanley Markowski of the Scranton P.D.'s Occult Crimes Investigation Unit. Expect that one late this year.

steve donoghue said...

Oh, Justin, I just GOTTA love that daring, throwaway spec "but focuses on Scranton, PA"! To quote Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, "Any man who can manage such a feat, I would'na dare t'disappoint"!

That's got to be one of the toughest parts of your job - you're constantly writing, you've taken the time and done the work to achieve a good solid mastery of what you're doing (and keep an open mind to achieve more), you're writing GOOD STUFF, and now it's just a question of getting people to read it. Having your publisher get sold out from underneath you can't help things any.

I know it doesn't help much, but here's my small, small part of the deal: you keep writing all this crackling good stuff, and I'll keep singing its praises!

Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil | Open Letters Monthly - an Arts and Literature Review said...

[...] we’ve seen before, the series has a familiar premise, a daring team of paranormal investigators taking on every piece [...]