The Empty Ones (2016) is suspenseful, scary, action-packed and occasionally gross. This is the second book in Robert Brockway’s THE VICIOUS CIRCUIT series, following 2015’s The Unnoticeables. The Empty Ones crackles with tension, and I found that several of the questions that plagued me at the end of Book One are answered here. By the end of this one, I am even more worried about young stuntwoman Kaitlyn than I was before.
The Empty Ones picks up the 2013 storyline just shortly after The Unnoticeables ended. Kaitlyn, her friend Jackie and the aging punk Carey are headed to Mexico, pursuing the D-list Hollywood celebrity who is an Empty One. However, only half the story is hers; in 1978, young punk Carey and his friend Randall have gone to London, tracking down an Empty One who killed their friend in New York. Basically, the forces they are fighting consist of several types of entities; there are “angels,” balls of light; there are Unnoticeables or “faceless,” people who look like regular people, but the rest of us immediately forget we saw them; there are the sludges or “tar people,” made of a sticky oily substance that burns flesh and bone; and the Empty Ones, who behave like folks we sometimes call psychopaths or sociopaths. The “angels” exist to simplify, by “solving” people or reducing them to their simplest mathematical equations; in short, destroying all personality or identity.
In my review of The Unnoticeables, I mentioned that I had trouble with Kaitlyn’s character, and specifically one physical feature about her that was not adequately explained. In The Empty Ones, that issue is thoroughly addressed. When Carey meets a monster-fighter named Meryll in London, a lot is explained, and Meryll’s story has a direct bearing on Kaitlyn’s situation in 2013. This explanation, and the evolution of Meryll’s character, leads to one of the scariest and most suspenseful scenes in the book, a confrontation between Carey and Kaitlyn. We know what Carey knows and what he is thinking in that moment. Kaitlyn does not. The scene quivers with both physical and deep emotional danger.
Carey is a true punk. He is an ass; he is nearly unbearably crude. It’s a large part of his charm. Carey has about eleven vulgar ways to describe sexual intercourse (something he aspires to, frequently, without a high degree of success), and seven of them made me laugh out loud. I just couldn’t help it.
Brockway shifts point of view throughout The Empty Ones, choosing some interesting ones, such as the point of view of one of the Empty Ones. In this way, we get some thoughts from Kaitlyn’s friend Jackie, and Kaitlyn emerges on the page as more of a person, not merely a “chosen one” with a destiny. It makes her story more fraught because, as we get to know her, we, like her, have more to lose.
I’m impressed with this series. I laughed, I cringed, I rocked back and forth moaning “Oh, no! Oh, no!” more than once, and I never stopped turning the pages. You must read The Unnoticeables in order to understand The Empty Ones, even with the bits of exposition during the London segment. What are you waiting for? Go get both of them!
Robert Brockway’s The Unnoticeables (2015) and The Empty Ones (2016) are fascinating, bloody, action-packed ruminations on God, music, man’s existence, beer, and the pursuit of sex. Aging punk Carey, former stuntwoman Kaitlyn, and Kaitlyn’s childhood friend Jackie have escaped California and the clutches of an Empty Ones cult. While making their way across the American Southwest and into Mexico, Kaitlyn tries to figure out how and why she was able to destroy an angel, Carey ruminates on past experiences hunting an especially nasty Empty One in London, and Jackie tries to piece her life and sanity back together. At the same time, an entity calling itself Meryll tentatively explores godhood with stomach-churning results, and hordes of tar men shuffle through the Mexican desert by moonlight.
The interwoven storylines in The Empty Ones are compelling, especially since there are more perspectives than just Kaitlyn in 2013 and Carey in 1977 (as in The Unnoticeables); bringing in those other voices helps the reader understand what sort of stakes Brockway is dealing with and why it’s so imperative that Kaitlyn and Carey succeed. Kaitlyn herself is given room to grow and be more than funny slogans on coffee mugs, though her monomania regarding her bed borders on tiresome. Overall, there’s a better incorporation of the punk ethos and punk music in Carey’s individual segments, and his joined plotline with Kaitlyn is compelling, particularly because he’s a fifty-something man in her timeline, and everything he saw and experienced as a young man influences his interactions with her and the information he shares with her. He’s still over-the-top and ridiculous when it comes to his drinking, vocabulary, and never-ending quest for sex, but it’s balanced out by her comparative levelheadedness and insistence that there must be a way to get themselves out of this desperate and impossible situation.
I liked seeing Carey and Randall stomp around London’s punk music scene in 1978 and the opportunity to learn, through the conversations they’re privy to, information about what roles Angels, Tar Men, Unnoticeables, and Empty Ones have played through human existence. (And maybe it’s just me, but I thought the British terms for these entities: Flares, the Sludge, Faceless, and Husks, surpassed the Americanisms.) As Marion mentioned, one character in particular is terrifying in its otherness, and is an excellent showcase for Brockway’s skills. The continuing “Marco Luis” storyline provides a fascinating examination of the cult of personality, skewering pop culture’s obsession with celebrities who engage in utterly ludicrous behavior with little to no repercussion.
Additionally, those extra perspectives show how much more is going on than Kaitlyn and Carey see, hinting at purposes and goals beyond anything they could imagine. I liked how badass Meryll is, despite the tragic elements of her backstory, and that Kaitlyn has the potential to become even more impressive. Randall and Jackie, acting as flawed and terrified foils to Carey and Kaitlyn’s determination, provide a realistic view toward how most of us would react if shrieking balls of light showed up or tar monsters were hunting our friends. It’s sometimes difficult to feel as though Kaitlyn or Carey is ever in real danger, but I can’t say the same for their companions.
I’m pleased to say that the VICIOUS CIRCUIT trilogy has been improving as each book is published, meaning that I have good reason to believe that the third book will be great. I want very much to know where Brockway is taking these characters and how it all will end, and I know a few punks (both young and old) that I’ll be recommending both The Unnoticeables and The Empty Ones to.