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Thursday, January 13, 2011


Author: D.D. Barant (pseudonym for Don DeBrandt, aka Donn Cortez)
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher and Titles: St. Martin's
      Dying Bites (6/2009)
      Death Blows (3/2010)
      Killing Rocks (12/2010)
      Better Off Undead (10/2011)
      Back from the Undead (3/2012)
      Undead to the World (11/2012) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 1/5/13 to include a review of the sixth and FINAL book: Undead to the World. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1 through 5:

             BOOK 6: Undead to the World             
     This is the most challenging review that I have ever written. How can I explain what's going on in this book without totally spoiling it for you? I believe the best thing for me to do is to keep it very general and very brief. My advice to you is this: Be careful about reading some of the on-line reviews of this book because if you know the plot secret ahead of time, you will cheat yourself out of a great "Aha!" moment that comes about 1/3 of the way into the story. As I began to read Undead to the World, I first thought that I had skipped a book in the series. When that turned out not to be true, I was confused and uncomfortable at firstbut I kept on reading (although I do confess to sneaking a tiny peak at later pages in the book). In the end, I found it best just to pretend that I was in Jace's shoes, knowing what she knew, when she knew it.  

      As you read the first chapters of this final book you might want to keep in mind this quotation from Killing Rocks, in which  Jace muses about magic: "When I first arrived in...Thropirelem...I quickly learned to detest magic. Magic is a detective's worst enemy; it breaks all the rules you need to rely on, it's contradictory and unreliable and frequently makes no damn sense whatsoever. However, over time, I've come to a grudging acceptance of the situation." (p. 202) All of Jace's musings on the subject of magic come true in this book.

     As the story opens, Jace is living the life of a two-job, minimum-wage worker in small-town Thropirelem, Kansas, with a best friend named Charlie Adams, the owner of the local bar. Jace has recently been released from a mental facility where she was treated for hearing voices from a television show called The Bloodhound Files. One day, Terrance, the local bully, tells Jace the story of the town's legendary horror figure called the Gallowsman. Terrance explains, "He doesn't just kill for the sake of killing. He kills for despair. In his mind, there's only one victim, one person he's going after. He kills everyone that person cares aboutbut that's just a means to an end. He needs his victim to die by their own hand. To take them down so far they don't even know what up is. And to do that, he needs to do more than just murder; he needs to get up close and personal with the person he's targeting, to get right in their head. Whisper in their ear, point out just how bad thins are." (p. 10) Terrance tells Jace this story to make fun of the fact that Jace actually does hear voices in her head, but this passage is actually the key to the entire plot.

     Jace feels driven to seek out information about the Gallowsman, and in doing so, her life becomes weirder and weirder. Soon, Jace is thinking, "So I'm Alice, and this is the other side of the looking glass." (p. 122) Later, in an even closer analogy, she compares her current life to The Wizard of Oz. Both analogies are accurate in their own way.

     In order to really appreciate the intricacies of this diabolically clever plot, you need to refresh your memory on all of the primary and supporting characters of the series. (See the list below under WORLD-BUILDING.) This is definitely not a stand-alone book because the reader must (along with Jace) begin to recognize connections between present and past characters in order to make predictions about their behavior. 

     Barant has always pushed the woo-woo envelope in this series, with realities and alternate realities existing, mingling, and clashing in every book. This final book (and I'm sad that it is the last one) is a tour de force that brings all of the characters face to face in a once-and-for-all resolution of the series conflict: Jace's final fate. The ending may or may not satisfy you. If you're a long-time series fan, it will give you much to mull over; if you haven't read all of the book, you may be disappointed. Either way, Jace has come a long way in this series, and she deserves, in the end, to make her own choices, whatever they may be.

     In conclusion, I'll just say "thank you," to D.D. Barant for creating the always-fascinating character of Jace Valchek and then placing her in the magical, mystical world of Thropirelem. Undead to the World is a fantastic ending to a great series.

     In this fresh take on the vampire myth, Special Agent Jacinda (Jace) Valchek is a 30-something, non-magical, human psychologist who works as an FBI profiler specializing in the criminally insane, and she's an expert at her job. One night, she is snatched up from her bedroom and pulled through a portal to an alternative earth: same cities, countries, geography; similar history; similar technology. Here's the big difference: the population is composed primarily of vampires, shape shifters, and golems, with a tiny minority of humans, many of whom have magical talentsHere's how Jace describes it: "I call this world Thropirelem, because the word neatly encapsulates the three main types of citizens: werewolves (thropes), vampires (pires), and golems (lems). Human beings make up a meager 1 percent of the worldwide population, less than a million people, and I'm one of them. So far." (Back from the Undead, p. 2)

     Mental illness has never been an issue in Thropirelem because none of the supernaturals can be affected by it...but humans can. The supernaturals desperately need Jace's skills to track down Stoker, a psychotic human who is wreaking havoc among the supernaturals in this realm, and Jace's freedom rides on his capture. Jace will be working for the National Security Agency (NSA), which is based in the Thropirelem version of Seattle. Jace's freedom rides on his capture.

     Most of the humans in Thropirelem were sacrificed by the pires back in 1945 as a gift to a god who, in return, gave them the ability to procreate. The few surviving humans are treated like most minorities, with disdain and with restrictions on their civil rights. Some of the pires and thropes also treat them as prey, nicknaming them OR, for Original Recipe. Naturally, there is a human resistance movement: the Free Human Resistance (FHA). In this realm, the lems are manufactured to be workers, while the pires and thropes are society's movers and shakers. 

Here is a list of the primary supporting characters for the series:
> Charlie: Jace's wise-cracking lem partner, animated with the spirit of a Tyrannosaurus Rex 
> David Cassius: Jace's cute pire boss at the NSA and a possible love interest for Jace  
> Pete Adams (aka Dr. Pete, Tair): a handsome thrope medical doctor with a mysterious past who turns to the dark side in book 2, but is also a possible love interest for Jace 
> Gretchen: a pire team member and Jace's new BFF 
> Damon Eisfanger: a thrope forensic scientist and shaman.
     The series has two primary villains. First, is the ancient, powerful sorcerer, Ahaseurus (aka Asher), who dragged Jace into this dimension and seems to be obsessed with her. Asher is the only person who can safely return Jace to the mortal world. Unfortunately, he allies himself with the bad guys and soon disappears. The second villain is the tall, dark and dangerous human Jace is supposed to capture: Aristotle Stoker (a descendant of you know who). Stoker is a murderous nut job who hates all thropes and weres. He lives off the grid and knows how to keep himself hidden at all times. In book 2, Stoker challenges Jace to turn her back on her contract with the supernaturals and join the human resistance movement to save her own species, but Jace doesn’t trust him at all. By book 3, we can add Dr. Pete (now known as Tair, his evil alter-ego) to the list of villains after his identity is altered by a sorcerer's manipulation of magic.

     I love this series. The concept is fresh and inventive, and the plots are engaging, with plenty of action. Barant tells the story in the first person from Jace’s point of view and handles that POV with dexterity. Jace is a strong, smart, and savvy heroine who is flexible enough to adapt to her new surroundings and make the best of what life has handed her. We don’t get much character development for her colleagues, though (except for Charlie). They are mostly there just to support or betray Jace. The series humor comes primarily from the sarcastic, teasing dialogue between Jace and Charlie, who is the most sentient (and best dressed) golem I've ever encountered in my reading.

     Here, Jace describes Charlie: "Charlie owns the copyright to the word deadpan, and he's filed an application for wiseass. Think Humphrey Bogart by way of the Terminator and you'll have an idea of his style. But he dresses better than either of them." (Better Off Undead, p. 3)

             BOOK 1: Dying Bites             
     In the series opener, Jace is transported to Thropirelem, where she meets most of main and supporting characters and learns the terms of her new life. The sorcerer, Aristotle Stoker, is suspected of carrying out a series of hideously violent murders of pires and thropes. If and when Jace captures Stoker, she will be allowed to go home. Jace's search eventually leads her to an encounter with an ancient god who comes (literally) straight from the works of H. P. Lovecraft

     This first book understandably contains a great deal of expositional information about life in Thropirelem. 

             BOOK 2:  Death Blows             
     In the second book, Jace must solve another series of killings, which are closely connected to comic book art. Comics are illegal in this world ever since an incident decades ago when they were a source of murderous magic that caused a number of deaths. The story line is generally engaging, except for places where the plot bogs down in a plethora of comics history. If you love comics (e.g., Bizarro, the Flash, Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol and Invisibles, Alan Moore's Watchmen), this won't bother you at all, but if (like me), you're not a comics enthusiast, you may find that the endless metaphysical intertwining of the mythos of comic art with the ongoing criminal investigation functions as a plot detractor rather than an enhancer. At the climax of this book, Dr. Pete is changed forever when he is stabbed by a crazy shaman with a magical sword.

             BOOK 3: Killing Rocks             
     As book 3 begins, Jace and her team are dispatched to Las Vegas to observe and disrupt a summit meeting among the villains: Asher, Stoker, and a third man named Silver Blue—a black-market weapons supplier who is just as mean and crazy as his cohorts. Jace's goal is to capture Asher and kill Stoker, but her plans are interrupted by a golem rebellion during which she loses Charlie’s loyalty. She also picks up an unexpected ally in the form of Azura, a talented mage (aka Astonisher) from the realm of Nightshadow. As the action progresses, Jace discovers that Asher has figured out a way to flip parts of Las Vegas to the Nightshadow realm, and vice versa, in order to enhance his magical powers. Here, Jane meets up with her "transportation" within the Nightshadow realm: "...Two hostile-looking guys are waiting in the twilight. I can tell at a glance exactly what kind of were creature they are, because every inch of their skin—bare except for a little strategically placed pouch—is covered in alternating black-and-white stripes. Also, they have these six-inch-high mohawks that go all the way down the backs of their necks....When we reach the base of the tower, the two zebra weres transform. I've seen plenty of thropes do that, but there's a difference when the end result is three hundred pounds of hoofed stripes....The little pouch, in case you're wondering, winds up around the neck." (p. 206-207)

     This book steps way over the line into fantasy, with its delineations of complicated mythologies and its time travel both to the past and the future within multiple realms (aka parallel worlds, alternate realities, alien dimensions). I sometimes got lost in the twists and turns as the action moved back and forth in time and space. By the end, Jace is right back where she began: on the hunt for Asher and Stoker and still yearning for home—her real home.

     Here, Jane gets some unhelpful (but humorous) advice on how to get rid of a curse:
     "Any idea how I get rid of it?"
     "Several. Do you have access to the Book of Aether, the left lung of an Eldritch Bogg, or a jar of distilled Lethe water?"
     "Not so much."
     "Then your prognosis is grim. Shall we go?" (pp. 210-211)

            BOOK 4: Better Off Undead            
     As the fourth book opens, Jace has a plan to magically bring back Dr. Pete's identity and banish Tair's. When that ceremony goes terribly wrong, she is pulled into Tair's sociopathic plans when he deliberately scratches her, ensuring that she will become a thrope at the next full moon. The plot follows Jace as she tries to recapture Tair and the Mafia Don with whom he is traveling. All the while, she is dealing with the looming loss of her humanity and the growing effects of the thrope infection. Cassius comes up with a plan to rescue Jace from her thrope destiny, but if he follows through, the consequences for Jace could go any of four ways: She could remain thrope, turn pire, go back to being human...or she could die. The plan also has dire consequences for Cassius and Tair. This story line totally turns away from the Stoker-Asher plot of the previous book and focuses more on relationship issues—delving into Jace's need for family, her isolation from humans, and her feelings for both Cassius and Tair. This, to me, was the best book in the series so far: lots of action, anxiety, and anticipation—and, finally, some real romance. (This book rates 3.5 in sensuality.) By the end of the book, Jace has made a romantic decision, but there are enough unresolved plot threads that we can't be sure that decision is her final one. We are also left to wonder how her new romantic relationship will affect her yearnings for her real home.

             BOOK 5: Back from the Undead             
     As the story opens, Jace and Cassius are in the first bloom of their romantic relationship when he goes off on a special assignment leaving Gretchen in charge. When the NSA receives a message from Stoker about Pire children going missing—probably kidnapped—in Vancouver, Jace heads out to investigate, accompanied by Charlie and Damon Eisfanger. The missing Pire children are all orphans, which means that they are stuck in childhood forever because in this world, when a Pire couple has children, the two parents each age 6 months for every year of their child’s life. If there are no parents to accept the aging burden, the child doesn’t age.

     In this world, Vancouver is a city run by various crime mobs, with the Yakuza being one of the strongest. After meeting up with Stoker, Jace and Charlie wind up in Yakuza hell after being betrayed by Zang, Stoker’s supposed informant about the Pire children. As the plot unwinds, Jace uncovers a complex web of criminal activity that includes Japanese gods and computer-generated alternate afterworlds. Jace also confronts two nemeses from her past: Tanaka, her one-time lover who betrayed her, and Isamu, the Japanese shaman who has vowed to terminate her Jace after she defeated him in a previous adventure.

     The plot is too complicated to summarize, so I’ll just tell you that it is quite full of Asian mythology and contains more of H. P. Lovecraft’s gods. This time it’s the fishy Dagon. In addition to Jace’s adventures in Vancouver, she is having disturbing—frightening, really—dreams about Cassius. When she returns from Vancouver, she learns that those dreams have been Cassius’ attempts to contact her—to warn her about approaching danger for both of them. The ending is a cliff hanger with Cassius in terrible danger.

     Although the mythology is deep and murky in this book, the pay-off is satisfying. Although Jace tells the story in the first person, she is an unreliable narrator in this book, keeping facts and ideas from the reader until she is ready to use them. This has the result of keeping the reader off balance because we’re used to a first-person narrator being open with us. As soon as I realized what was happening, though, it was easy enough to cope. Seeing both Stoker and Tanaka renounce their former occupations is a shock, as are the separate fates that await both by the end of the book. Jace and Charlie are still bantering away, but their sarcastic dialogue seems more forced than it was in previous books. All in all, this is a solid addition to the series, particularly since there is so much development in some of the minor characters.

1 comment:

  1. I love this series and already pre-ordered book 3 =)