Carlos Delacruz is an inbetweener, a man half-alive with no memory of the time before his death, in the employ of New York’s Council of the Dead. When the Council send him after another inbetweener, Carlos learns that he is not unique, that there are more than just the two of them, and he is charged, with the man’s dying breath, to protect his victim’s sister — from his own employers. And in a neighbourhood that plays home to a ghost dear to Carlos, one who shepherded him into his new half-life when he awoke from death, there are sightings of the impish creatures known as ngks, known to herald — or cause — disaster.
On a technical level, Older’s writing is such a step above what I find in most investigative urban fantasy. The evocative prose complements the remarkable sense of place in this fictional New York. I’m used to urban fantasy books set in American cities feeling very generic. Big cities are full of history and short on personal space. They’re full of different ethnicities and languages and religions and foods. They’re a cacophony of honking car horns and exhaust fumes and people pouncing on you every five steps to convert you or sell you a Rolex. But in the pages of this genre, they’re too often empty, sterile spaces populated by straight English-speaking WASPs and the only other five equally WASPy people they seem to share the streets with. The Brooklyn of Half-Resurrection Blues is a welcome change for the livelier. I’ve been to New York City, my only trip to the United States so far, but aside from having been driven through it and over the iconic bridge, I haven’t exactly seen Brooklyn. It comes to life on the page such that from half a world away, I can visualise it and appreciate its distinctiveness from the more familiar Manhattan.
The supernatural portion of Older’s Brooklyn is infused with colour as well, from its grim and eerie portrayal of the afterlife, to the cultural fusion of the traditions of its living denizens, to the simultaneously hilarious and spine-chilling unkillable ngks and their, erm, exercise bikes of woe. (It’s not as goofy as it sounds. Well, actually it is, but it’s goofy in a way that really works.) I’d have liked to see and understand more of the NYCOD and the machinations behind their hold over the dead and dead-adjacent of the city, but since this is the first book in a series I imagine too much too soon would dispel the mystique, and I expect there’ll be more of that in later volumes.
The main thing that brings this down from a great read to a good one for me is, unfortunately, Carlos himself. To put it simply, Carlos is kind of a shitty person. I’m not generally at all opposed to reading books about people who aren’t very nice — the antihero is a trope for a reason — but Carlos isn’t an antihero or an interesting dabbler in moral grey areas. He is shitty in the way that far too many everyday people are shitty. He kills a man and then decides, on the basis of nothing more than a photograph, that he’s going to romantically pursue this man’s sister, because she’s hot. When he does actually get romantically entangled with her, he seems to have little interest in who she is as a person and absolutely zero concern for the fact that the pain she’s going through is something he caused, except insofar as it might get him caught and deny him access to this person whose life he ruined but who he still thinks he has some kind of right to, because, you know, she’s hot.
While criticism of Carlos for behaving this way is valid, perhaps it’s unfair to criticise the book for portraying him as such, because guys who view women with a certain level of entitlement towards their beauty and a total lack of regard for their emotional dimensions are certainly very realistic, and this is a novel that can be lauded for its realism. But making one of them a protagonist is a choice, and when you spend your life trying to avoid exactly that kind of man, being plunged into the mind of one is not really an enjoyable way to spend your reading time. It’s odd that I am more comfortable being in the minds of evil sorcerers and serial killers than I am of a man like Carlos, but that’s why it’s not a problem that he’s a shitty person, it’s a problem that he’s a mundane shitty person — I’m far less likely to be murdered or cursed by a dark lord than I am to deal with a man to whom a woman’s grief or other emotions are secondary to her status as a sex object.
This might be one of those books that would have worked better for me in third person than first, where Sasha could have had room to grow into a character independent of Carlos’s gaze and the narrative might have seemed less approving of it, but since we’re stuck in Carlos’s squalid mind, it’s all I have to go on.
I will read the next book in this series when it comes along, because I want to see more of this Brooklyn, and I want to spend more time with Daniel José Older’s luscious prose. I expect, however, that unless Carlos gets a personality transplant I’d have far more fun with Older’s writing if it featured a change of protagonist to someone who isn’t trying so desperately hard to be a dudebro. Hey, can Kia get a book? She’s awesome.