Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. All of these paranormal investigator potboilers coming down the pike are more or less the same. It’s all a question of how well each one rearranges the furniture. Some do it sufficiently well so as to avoid the easiest of criticisms, that the book in question is little more than a CC of the latest Laurell K. Hamilton/Jim Butcher/Kim Harrison opus. Some manage to establish their own voice adequately, then fail to do enough with it to rise above the para-pack. In 2008 at Armadillocon, there was a panel on a closely-related subgenre, paranormal romance (which they didn’t put me on, wisely), which asked the question, “What are the attractions? Why are so many authors making the jump to this fast-growing movement?” You could ask the same about the PI novels, and I’d suggest the answer is just as obvious: They’re selling like crack, just like doorstopper fantasies were selling in the Robert Jordan-dominated 90’s. Everyone wants to write what’s selling.
Jes Battis brings an impressive scholarly pedigree to his genre writing. His first book is something of a critical evaluation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Night Child is basically Buffy Meets CSI. The inspiration here is largely Joss Whedon, without a hint of Harry Dresden. Though in deference to all things meta, Battis does have his heroine Tess Corday name-check Anita Blake at least once.
Wearing its self-awareness on its black leather sleeve, Night Child for the most part races along indifferent to its unoriginality and determined simply to entertain you on a dark and stormy night. It’s pleasantly surprising how well Battis pulls it off — most of the way. Yes, it trades in cliché throughout, opening with the single most clichéd scene in all crime fiction, the “I’m standing over a dead body in a rain-slicked alley when I’d rather be home in bed” routine. The climax incorporates the obligatory good-guy-who-in-a-twist-turns-villain, who spends just enough time taunting our heroine (while she provides the equally obligatory expository soliloquy tying all the loose ends together) for the cavalry to arrive in the nick. Then there’s the lingering problem that I’m still not clear, after all is said and done, what role the villains expected a particular character to play in their nefarious plans, and precisely what help they expected her to be to them.
All of which means that if you aren’t already a para-crime otaku, this book won’t turn you into one and the empire will stand if you pass it by next time you’re shopping. For those of you who do enjoy these stories, you’ll be satisfied with Battis’s treatment of character. Yes, you could do an RPG character sheet for Tess Corday and find that she follows the checklist for a PI stock heroine fairly faithfully. She’s something of a loose cannon, she’s wearing the patience of her superiors thin, the only one who understands her is her partner, and we have the requisite quirky supporting cast, who provide her with clues and plot points during her trips to the morgue/computer lab/wherever. Et to the cetera.
Why is any of this impressive? Because despite their hackneyed qualities, Tess and the other characters do emerge from the page as convincing people. Sometimes, we like stock characters in our genre fiction because they’re relatable in certain ways. None of us really gets to be Batman or Spider-Man in real life (what, you didn’t know that?), but the way those characters have been presented in their recent adventures allows us both fantasy wish-fulfillment and a certain degree of on-the-level sympathy — even superheroes have their issues. Tess, who works in Vancouver as an Occult Special Investigator, is part-human and part-demon, which gives her the latent magic skills to investigate paranormal crimes. But, like Buffy and so many other pop-culture heroines that inspired her, she’s very much an insecure and vulnerable young woman whose driven personality is a way of overcompensating for past sins and current feelings of inadequacy.
Tess’s investigation into the murder of a young vampire draws her into a plot involving a power play among the city’s otherworldly denizens, focusing on a bewildered teenage girl who brings out Tess’s latent protective/maternal instincts. A gay writer, Battis has a sympathy for his creatures of the night that you don’t get from most other urban fantasy of this kind. He portrays Vancouver’s paranormal community as a metaphor for the LGBT community, a subculture within the mainstream, understood, misunderstood, tolerated, despised, depending on whom you talk to. When Tess meets Lucien, a necromancer, a human who straddles the thin line between both worlds, there’s no denying that their tense dialogue (Lucien: “You loathe me, don’t you, Tess? Everything about me — you find it abhorrent.” Tess: “I just — don’t understand it. That’s all.”) is coming from a very personal place for Battis. He’s also not the tiniest bit subtle in depicting vampirism as an infection, a retrovirus, just like HIV. If the virus is found in your blood, you’re tagged as “V+”.
So Battis’s world is clearly something in which he has a deep and sincere investment. On those grounds, if any latter-day PI story deserves to avoid dismissal as a shallow cash-in, Night Child would be it. But for all that he has his heart in his world here, Battis the storyteller hasn’t yet gotten beyond Formula One. The plot could be that of any CSI episode, provided you slipped a few mages and demons into it. A little more thinking outside the proverbial box next time, and this series could have some real bite.
This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website SFReviews.net by special arrangement.