Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
Author: Lish McBride
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
How can you not love that title? Seriously, how can you? It gives you tone (tongue-in-cheek humor) and content (necromancers, or more broadly, wizardry in a modern setting), plus it rolls right off the tongue. Who cares if it's paraphrased from an old Elton John song? It's awesome. So I had some expectations of quality when I cracked this book open. And they were mostly met. Mostly. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is a good read start to finish, but it's a somewhat better read at the start than it is at the finish. Somewhere along the way, it runs out of steam.
One of my favorite lines in this book is not the first line, but it should have been: "I opened my nightstand drawer and dug around. There, under a gaming magazine and next to a slightly dusty pack of condoms, was a spare piece of cotton string." That pretty much tells you all you need to know about our hero, Samhain Corvus LeCroix, twentysomething loser with a life that's a lot worse than he wished it was. Sam is a college dropout working the closing shift in a Seattle fast food joint. He shares an apartment and a pile of broken dreams with two co-workers. You'd think that sounds pretty miserable, and it is, but it gets worse when some creepy guy in a business suit comes after Sam at work following Sam's accidental vandalism of creepy guy's Mercedes. Creepy guy backs off after babbling some nonsense about a Council, but later Sam gets attacked by a werewolf in the parking lot, and the day after someone sends his friend Brooke's severed head to him. Her talking severed head. Creepy guy is, in fact, Douglas Montgomery, professional necromancer. Sam, unbeknown to himself, has a gift for necromancy, although a weak one. Douglas wants Sam as an apprentice, and somehow thinks killing Brooke is the best way to engender Sam's loyalty. So, Sam sets out to discover more about his powers and find a way to oppose Douglas.
The opening chapters of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer are some of the best I've read in a while. They give us a great sense of Sam, his life, his fellow-slacker friends, and the mundane world he lives in. We also see the other, supernatural world that Sam also lives in, but doesn't know about. Sam himself has a distinctive voice that's half gloom, half snark. The supporting cast also makes a strong showing, with best bud Ramon and eventual love interest Brid being standouts.
But there are definitely some issues. They creep in slowly. After those opening chapters, the pacing gets wonky. A lot of this book -- and I mean a lot -- seems to be padding. We get various chapters from the perspective of characters other than Sam. This is disorienting, not for the usual reasons, but because Sam's chapters are written in the first person and the others in the third. Lacking Sam's unique voice, they're not as strong overall. There's a lot of exposition, a lot of flashbacks, a lot of stuff that's, in the end, kind of irrelevant. The feeling I get is that this was a much shorter, tighter story that didn't meet the wordcount for publication. So it had to be gussied up with a lot of scenes in which large amounts of carefully-disguised nothing happen. Following Sam's second face-to-face with Douglas, we dive into several chapters of slow-moving exposition as Sam tries to unravel his family history and/or find out what the devil is going on with all this weirdness. Finally the plot starts moving again when Douglas shifts gears, kidnaps Sam, and tosses him in a cage with Brid, leading to... well, more exposition, plus some not-quite-convincing romance.
About Brid: she's a hybrid werewolf/fae that serves as our other main character. Sort of. Up through the halfway point, she has a good number of chapters from her perspective. Brid has been captured by Douglas because... well, that's not really clear. He's running some mad-scientist experiments on the side of his main scheme, and it's implied that he's plotting something big concerning the werewolves, but we never get details. Brid's not a bad character by herself, but the plot wastes her. Aside from a few character-building flashbacks, she spends most of the book locked helplessly in a cell, trading barbs with Douglas and his right-hand werewolf Michael. When Sam gets thrown into the cell with her, they start with some teasing and "locked in a room" bonding, and proceed to huddling together for warmth and eventually getting it on on the floor of the cell.
This romantic subplot doesn't work. It makes sense from a psychological perspective. I mean, they're two reasonably-attractive, hormonal young people locked in a cell together with no other company, plenty of worries, and not enough clothes to go around. What do you expect to happen? But Brid and Sam don't have a whole lot of chemistry, and their interactions do not feel like the stuff true love is made of. I can't tell whether the author is playing it like it should be played -- a relationship of convenience -- or if she wants us to believe that Sam and Brid have a future. The ending does kind of imply the latter. I guess it could be made to work as a romantic starting point, but the inevitable sequel will require more solid relationship-building and some serious morning-after angst. They can't just jump from here to together forever and expect readers to buy it.
Douglas is an even bigger problem with the novel. In fact, he's probably the story's biggest weakness. He makes a very poor villain. Mind you, he's a great character -- he's vile through and through, but carries it with a style and obvious intelligence that makes him a pleasure to watch regardless. He's a slimy snake, but the slime glistens and shines on his scaly hide -- the kind of guy you imagine being played by a graying, classically-trained thespian getting paid a lot of money to ham it up a little. The problem is, Douglas is a marionette villain. He does what the author wants, to move the plot in the way the author wishes. His goal is to recruit Sam as a kind of Sith Apprentice, and if he can't get that he'll settle for stealing Sam's power for himself. I can buy that. I can even buy that Douglas thinks making Sam hate him is a good way to accomplish it. He believes, after all, that Sam is too weak to do him any real harm, and will eventually come around out of either fear or the desire for power. That's absurdly shortsighted, but he wouldn't be the first evil villain undone by pride. The problem is that Douglas' methods aren't consistent. He starts off with "Join me or else" intimidation tactics, moves on to the old "I can make you powerful" shtick, and from there to kidnapping and forced servitude. So our brilliant, scheming archvillain comes off like an indecisive flip-flopper who doesn't think things through.
Also, for the amount of exposition tossed at us, there's an impressive amount of stuff that ends up not being explained. The statues Douglas uses in the climax had only the vaguest of mentions earlier, leaving exactly what the good guys are fighting against unclear. James gets very little development, despite being an apparently important character. On the other hand, a lot of stuff that does come up winds up being irrelevant: Sam's half-sisters, the seer with the drop-dead gorgeous daughter, the characters from the Council scene, and so forth. There's a bit of Trilogy Sydrome here. Or, perhaps more accurately, Issue One Syndrome. By the end, it's apparent that Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is really the setup for a series. Sam ends up knee-deep in the supernatural, surrounded by a bunch of friends and allies who are ready to help him cope with his new life. Since I liked the characters and the world, I could see this going to interesting places. But the here and now is kind of unsatisfying.
It's a testament to the author's skill that this book holds on to its essential charm through all this. Despite the plot sliding into incoherence, the writing losing spark, and the climax being an absolute mess, I did enjoy myself all the way through. But it's also a bit of a disappointment. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is a good book, but it could have been a great book. With a few more revisions -- maybe even a full re-write -- it would have been Book of the Year material. Instead, the author punted, and what we've got is swiss cheese-- tasty, but full of holes. There will be a sequel, I'm sure, and I'll read it. But I hope that it's a lot more focussed and a lot more consistent.