Night Child is the first book in the Occult Special Investigators series, written by Jes Battis. Battis is a gay male academic whose research, according to the ‘about the author’ bit at the back of the book, focuses on popular culture, gay and lesbian youth studies, and disability. Normally, I’m not terribly interested in what else an author does (unless I’m really into their books), but this proves to be relevant.
Now, Night Child. I suppose I’d better say up front that the book was OK. I mean, I got all the way through it without chucking it across the room or swearing audibly, or even going off to do something more interesting, like the washing-up. When faced with the choice between reading the second book in the series and, say, a two-hour wait on a cold railway platform with nothing to read but timetables and safety notices, just bring on the book. And that is not necessarily the faint praise it sounds – I’ve encountered some books, and some authors, that I would not read of my own free will under any circumstances.
Jes Battis, therefore, comes into the category of authors I would not choose to read, but if I have nothing else constructive to do, I’ll use one of his books to pass an otherwise idle hour. By reading it, not by making origami with the pages, or trying to train myself to walk like a young lady by dancing with it balanced on my head, or… well, you get the picture.
Now, I like urban fantasy, and I read a lot of it. The thing about any genre, I guess, is that because a genre by its very nature restricts the plot choices available (i.e., in the murder-mystery genre, a central part of the plot has to be a murder and a mystery, or the book doesn’t qualify for the genre) this means that authors have to be especially careful about stereotypes. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid stereotypes completely, but if that’s the case, the author has to try to bring something new to the old familiar tropes. Somebody once said that there were only seven Western plots, and that the aim of the game for authors of Westerns was not to try to invent number eight (although fame and fortune awaits the one who does) but to do something new and interesting with the existing seven.
So, to continue. Why didn’t this book make the cut for me?
Stereotypes was the first reason. As above, I acknowledge that it’s probably impossible to write urban fantasy without coming up against some form of stereotype. However, Battis appears to have crashed into a whole family of them.
Although the setting (a sort-of governmental occult crime investigation agency) could be described as a stereotype, I’ll let that one go. Battis does it fairly well, although I have to say that the amount of high-tech kit they have access to must mean that they’re either providing services to a very wide geographical area or Vancouver (where the book is set) has a very high occult-crime rate. Nothing else would justify the expense.
Then there’s the protagonist, Tess, herself. The young maverick investigator who’s already been in trouble for breaking the rules several times, and is being threatened with disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, and that this case is her last chance to redeem herself. There are clear implications that although she is still on a low grade that she should have been promoted from by now, this is due to the fact that she is Misunderstood, not because she is incompetent (contrary to the views of her boss)… you get the picture? Yep. Actually, if her performance during the book is any indication of her usual conduct on the job, I’m surprised she hasn’t been sacked for misconduct already.
Then there’s the boss. He is the card-carrying Unsympathetic Boss, the rule-bound diametric opposite to the maverick Tess. He, also, is very familiar.
To come back to Tess, she has the obligatory Dark Past, complete with flashbacks to the terrible tragedy where she feels she should saved her friend from a horrible fiery death. Throughout the book she has visions of the friend’s ghost (or shade, or whatever) in her dreams, always accusing her. Right at the end of the book, after she saves the day (and the girl who reminds her of the dead friend) she has a vision where the friend appears to forgive her. OK, a Dark Past is not necessarily a bad thing, and can be an important force for forming a character into the necessary tortured shape, or situation, to allow him or her to be the hero of the tale. But it seemed to me that Tess’s Dark Past was both too intrusive, and not detailed enough. And was resolved far too easily. We don’t find out much about Eve (the dead friend), but we get treated to flashbacks several times. And surely someone with that level of guilt over a past even wouldn’t be able to resolve it quite so easily? As if emotionally, having saved the current girl (Mia), it’s suddenly OK that Eve died. A bit like balancing the books, paying off a debt – right, that’s it, all square, start afresh.
Secondly, unless Battis has a second career as a forensic technician, he obviously did a ton of research for this book. For which he gets all credit. However, he has obviously not come across the concept that, as an author, only 10% of your research should make it into your book. He knows all the words, and all the acronyms, and unfortunately, he shares every single one with us. It’s OK for me – I know most of this stuff already, being of a biomedical sciences background. But pity the poor arts-background reader who would have to keep stopping to look the words up. Mostly, Battis does give us an explanation of his polysyllabic technical jargon, but that only serves to stop the storyline. Also, it makes the setting less realistic. I work with people who can use words like ‘leucocytosis’ in everyday conversation, and believe me, professionals do not talk that way. They assume that you, the professional they are talking to, know what ‘Acanthamoeba keratitis’ is without them having to explain it to you. They also tend to assume that you don’t have enough time to listen to long-winded explanations of how they got to the conclusion they’ve reached, and skip right ahead to the information. So Battis’ in-universe explanations don’t work for me; it seems like a clunky device for allowing his technicians to use dense technical terminology and still have the reader know (more or less) what’s going on. Personally, I think he’d’ve been better using footnotes.
It’s a tough life, being an author. If you don’t do your research, your readers complain. If you do, then they still complain… The key with this one is that as the author you need to know all this stuff, if only to stop your characters screwing up massively, but do you really have to give your readers everything? In general, it works better if you only make a small proportion of your research explicit, and leave the rest as an implication that adds solidity to the setting.
OK, next complaint. My last posting was about cultural references – about making sure your character fitted into the right cultural slot for them. Battis is gay, and oh my, does it show. The book is full of gay-culture references – even characters like the forensic pathologist (female) use gay terminology that those not in the scene wouldn’t be expected to use in casual conversation, at least when not applied to specifically gay subjects. One is left with the impression that a significantly large portion of the population of the city is not only homosexual, but involved in the ‘gay scene’, so much so that gay scene memes have become generally used by the population at large. While this might be the case (never having been to Vancouver I don’t know, although I’ve read other books set there that didn’t give the same impression), it doesn’t seem very likely. It seems far more likely that Battis – both personally and professionally – is very much involved in the gay scene, so much so that it has permeated every part of his life and he can no longer tell were the ‘gay culture’ ends and ‘standard culture’ begins. Although the straight female protagonist’s best friend and co-worker is a gay male, this does not seem to be enough to explain the gay cultural references and situations throughout the book.
Another thing, noted by another reviewer and also by me, is how Battis treats the love/sex scenes. We get some loving, almost lyrical descriptions of men’s bodies – it’s clear that the writer either loves the male body, or is very good at faking it. Battis has obviously thought about male attractiveness, and the way men act and the way they see their bodies, and it shows. Contrast with the almost complete lack of any mention of women’s bodies – we get some basic description, but that’s it. Another reviewer commented that one of the sex scenes might as well have been between two men, rather than a man and a woman, and that’s absolutely true. The scene is written from Tess’s (the female protagonist’s) perspective, and she reflects on the various ways her male companion is utterly sexy and gorgeous (but lyrically – it’s seriously erotic prose, in the best, elegant and sensual way) but she doesn’t refer to her own bodily or sexual response at all. It’s weird – it’s as if she doesn’t even have a body. It made me think of the archetypal demon lover – the disembodied intelligence giving sexual gratification in exchange for life-force, and what a sex scene might be like if written from that perspective. It’s as if Battis is not only totally ignorant of women’s bodies, but totally uninterested in doing any research into how women experience sex. Or as if he thinks that women don’t experience sexual arousal at all – it’s as if there’s a blank where the female sexual response ought to be. I think he would have been far better to have made Tess into a homosexual man – even though we’d still have the gay cultural references peppered through the book, it would have been a bit more believable. And we wouldn’t have the bizarre experience of Tess taking part in a sex act without, apparently, it having any effect on her own body.
Thirdly, the denouement at the end. Battis gets around the fact that so far nothing seems to make sense by having the Bad Guy, who has Tess cornered, ‘reconstruct’ events for him, i.e., describe everything that he did. Unfortunately, much of this seems to be leaps of faith or logic that were not foreshadowed in the previous action; I was not entirely clear how Tess managed to work this out (except by pure deductive genius, maybe). Also, it’s obvious that the Bad Guy has not read the Evil Overlord list, particularly Number 4 (Shooting is not too good for my enemies), Number 6 (I will not gloat over my enemies’ predicament before killing them) and Number 7 (When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.”).
Fourthly, characterisation. Perhaps due to the stereotypical element, the characters seems to be either flat, or slightly irritating, or both. Tess is the only one who gets much development, and she just gets enough to make me want to slap her (that particular combination of arrogance and ignorance is dangerous in a person with any kind of significant responsibility; it’s also unattractive). Thinking about it, possibly the problem is that almost everything in the book was entirely related to the ‘case’. In most books, you get something about the protagonist’s private life, too, and this serves both as emotional relief from the plot (for the reader as well as the protagonist), a way of making the pace a little less frenetic, and also a way of developing character. I think Tess (and the others) suffered from this – because Battis never gives her any time off to relax, the only time we see her, she’s behaving like the kind of loose-cannon junior member of the team who is every manager’s nightmare because she has no clue what she’s barging into and no conception that rules are there for a reason. We don’t even know why she behaves this way – is she just an arrogant, ignorant jerk who’s going to crash and burn spectacularly some point quite soon, or is there a bit more to her? Does she really have a track record of pulling off successes through her disobedience to the rules, or is she just a career screw-up? We just don’t know, and that’s bad because it makes it harder to relate to her.
I think I’ll stop there. In conclusion, this book was OK. I would describe it as a mediocre addition to the urban fantasy canon, and I won’t be reading the other books in the series; it’s not bad but it’s not good enough that I want to devote any more of my life to the series when I have better alternatives.