Generally, I consider myself to have a reasonably good handle on the urban fantasy scene, but Rob Thurman’s books appear to have been something of a blindspot. I only became aware of them when someone mentioned her (it’s short for “Robyn”) as one of the giants of the genre. I decided to fill in the blindspot by reading Nightlife, the first book (of thirteen, currently) in the “Cal Leandros” series.
I thought they looked interesting from the blurb, which described the main character as part-Grendel. That sounded awesome and atypical; Grendel isn’t one of those monsters that gets much coverage anymore, and I’m rather bored of half-werewolves and vampires and fairies. A book based on less well-known mythology would be welcome.
It turns out that he isn’t really half-grendel. He’s half monster, but “Grendel” is just the name he and his brother call the monsters, lacking a better name for them. I was slightly disappointed by this early revelation (it’s on the first few pages, and not a plot point – I haven’t spoiled anything), but that isn’t a point against the book at all. It isn’t based on Beowulf, and my initial hope that it was was based on one word – that’s my fault for jumping the gun somewhat.
Cal is half monster. He’d like to forget this, but his monstrous family doesn’t want to let him go. With his fully-human brother Niko, Cal has been running for years; they caught him once before, and he doesn’t wish to repeat the experience. But now it seems that the monsters are closing in again.
The primary relationship in the book is between the two brothers – that’s the focus of the narrative. The brothers only have each other, and though other characters drop in and out, that’s what they care about; either one seems ready to sacrifice anyone and anything for the other. Brotherhood doesn’t get much of a leading role in books – it’s good to see a book dealing with it. While there are romantic suggestions and subplots, they’re very much given second billing.
Nightlife is unusual in other ways as well – the monsters are a prime example. Beginning with the “grendels”, Nightlife shows that it isn’t going to follow the expected “The Vampire and Lycans clan have been at war for centuries before I was born, their endless conflict hidden from the human world” pattern, and every supernatural element from then on continues to demonstrate this.
Standard monsters are replaced in this book by rarer ones – banshees, old-school fey, changelings. There’s a troll, but it isn’t like any other troll I’ve come across before. The troll scene bears mentioning both because the creature given that name is very, very different to the expected stupid-with-a-club idea, and because the scene is fantastically creepy; I found it the most unsettling scene in the book by a long way.
I like the variation – I enjoy seeing more obscure monsters take a turn in the limelight, and it makes a welcome change to the sometimes wearying parade of effete vampires with a dark side. I applaud the attempt at breaking the mold.
The atmosphere Rob Thurman seems to be going for is also a departure from the norm – she aims from the get-go for the darker, grittier side of things. What you end up with is a sort of sordid underbelly take on urban fantasy. All the firepower is on the monsters’ side, none of the comforting rules – holy water, etc. – still apply. It isn’t a book with a grand cathartic final battle, or one in which celestial fire purges the unclean so that humanity can sleep safely once more. Every fight is a dragged-out, painful affair. The good guys don’t always win, and they don’t ever win a total victory. There’s always pain, always a cloud to the silver lining.
Again, it’s something I’m all for. A world with monsters in wouldn’t be happy, there wouldn’t be much cause for celebration or much time to rest if you were actually being chased by shadow given flesh. Thurman tries to show that here, show that it wouldn’t all wrap up neatly, and that combat with the dark would have real and lasting consequences. Dresden goes down, but he always gets back up, finds his way to the top of his game. Cal only makes it to his knees, and screams his throat raw when people try to help.
Nightlife attempts to be a more serious take on urban fantasy, a darker view that doesn’t stick to the same old tired tropes. All of that is great. However, as a whole package, it doesn’t quite come off.
The big issue is the structure – it’s somewhat bloated, and slows down in the middle. Characters are dropped in without warning, and don’t really need to be there. It’s a long book, and it’s longer than it needs to be. The overall effect of that is that it slows down the pace – the good things that Nightlife is doing get lost in the trek to the next pivotal scene.
It’s also a novel that aims for a non-standard structure, one in which the narrator shifts halfway through, and information is kept from the reader somewhat. I really enjoy when books are prepared to take a chance on something like that; Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion does something similar for a book and a half, and it’s awesome once you understand why.
The problem with that is that it’s really difficult to pull off well. It’s a brave thing to do, one that puts a lot of trust in your reader, and the execution needs to be flawless for it to work. Reading The Deed of Paksenarrion for the first time, it just irritated me – it was only reading through a second time that I understood how big a risk Elizabeth Moon was trying to run.
Nightlife‘s shift in perspective makes sense for the narrative, and allows Thurman to add some necessary action and exposition scenes, but it is rather jarring, and again slows the narrative down; suddenly you are in a different story and it feels like a delay in the plot, not a continuation of it. Again, I like that Rob Thurman attempted something out of the ordinary. More authors should try it, and it’s an interesting thing to do. But unless it’s perfect, that interesting thing does come with downsides.
That’s the deal with Nightlife throughout – it has interesting and original ideas, it’s doing lots of praiseworthy things, but those interesting things slow it down and make it harder to appreciate them. It’s a book that is nearly fantastic, but in aiming for fantastic and missing, it gets knocked down a step or two.
I didn’t love it. I’ll read more, but it’s not a book I’m going to rave about. It’s good enough that it’s almost certainly a lot of people’s favourite, but it needs to be faster-moving in both plot and prose.
As I said above, it is the first of thirteen books. What I’m hoping is that, as the series continues, the problems get ironed out, and my buy-in to the characters gets greater, I’ll start to really enjoy them.