Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Bleak History" by John Shirley

Title: "Bleak History"
Author: John Shirley
Pages: 384
Format: Novel
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Standalone as far as I can tell, but a hint towards a possible sequel
Publisher: Pocket Books

What you can expect: An urban fantasy novel that shows the genre in a positive light and not as stuck in a rut or too narrowly defined. It brings some fresh decisions in the mixture of the modern era surroundings with the mystical.

Pros: Innovative world, the lack of physical monsters like vampires, skinwalkers or zombies, fast paced magical action and entertaining prose.

Cons: The story momentum promised a fantastic climax, whereas in reality the novel finished in a way that disappointed me.


CLASSIFIED: APPARENT SUPERNATURAL Subject: Gabriel Bleak. Status: Civilian. Paranormal skills: Powerful. Able to manipulate AS energies and communicate with UBEs (e.g. "ghosts" and other entities). Psychological profile: Extremely independent, potentially dangerous. Caution is urged....

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or "skip tracer," in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they'll gain access to the Hidden -- the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel's got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community -- and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings -- Gabriel's about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.

Characters: Apart from the amazing spiritual setting and paranormal abilities displayed in this novel, the backbone of this novel is its near-to-life characters. I found that I could relate and instantly clicked with main protagonist Gabriel Bleak, who apart from sharing a very unusual surname is one of the most believable and down to earth kind of people, despite his service in the military, his inborn connection with the Hidden and his current gig as a bounty hunter.

To begin with I rarely encounter a character with such rich history that feels whole, complete and three dimensional without dispelling the illusion that he is fictional. From the story and his recollections the reader knows that Gabriel is special, but the character never truly shows his full potential unless a life or death situation demands it. He has an innate sense of when it’s necessary to exercise power, while the rest of the time he successfully stays below radars and his military experience as well as quick wits have helped him escape more than one tight spot. This well-grounded and calculative attitude roots the story in the field of believable.

The supporting cast here is a bit of a meshed field for me, because I enjoyed immensely the character of Shoella, whereas Agent Loraine Sarikosca felt a bit stiff and either intentionally as an inadequate human being or just unsuccessful as a whole. Moloch, the arch nemesis here is cunning and intricate in his plans as all demonic entities ought to be, while his henchmen have their own special appeal.

Story: What starts as a simple ‘recruitment’ from Homeland Security’s CCA leads to a story that runs deep into history, through the ages and civilizations, from which the world hangs in the balance. The gradual buildup from CCA’s mouse trap attempts on Gabriel to the revelation of his importance in the bigger picture is delivered effortlessly aided by Shirley’s evocative prose, which paints vivid and vibrant pictures in the mind’s eye. Shirley has a very distinctive and pleasurable style, which melts away the time spent reading. This coupled with a rich environment, simple enough to let it breath and take a life on its own and stir the story into different directions, creates a world you would want to return to and dream to be a part of the ShadowCom, people with paranormal abilities, familiars and spirits that can aid them in their workings for instance to create a pocket dimension.

I am jaded, when it comes to end of the world stories, so I cooled a bit, when Gabriel was thrust into the position of the potential savior of Earth as we know and love it. The enemy has been revealed, his motives clear and now it was all up to the protagonist to be the hero, save the day, meet his true soul mate, but first needs to overcome seduction and mortal dangers along the way as well as come to terms with truth about his past. It’s this type of story after the reader gets into the last quarter or so into the novel, which didn’t strike me as extremely entertaining, because it ended exactly as I predicted. Never to mention that the wild card in the novel got disposed in a very unexpected and too easy to be true manner, which also took away some satisfaction from the experience.

Verdict: In a well-plotted, a well-written and well-designed urban fantasy novel, which stirs clear from typical scenarios in the genre, albeit it throws anchor in a well known story trope.

Rating: 4/5


Anonymous said...

I confess to growing weary of fantasy books in which the main struggle is the "struggle for the entire earth/universe." Not saying that those types of fantasy books can't be good. I'm just saying there may be too many of them.

It's such a grand, large-scale theme that doing it too often starts to feel cliche and worn out.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

My sentiment exactly as far as this one goes. I would have felt more comfortable, if the story was staged on a smaller scale, centering over just this cast and not have their actions decide the fate of the world.

I'm just jaded and need diversity. I hope I find it soon. Thanks for stopping by.

Jo said...

Awesome review! Bleak History sounds like an awesome book!

Harry Markov: daydream said...

You won't make a mistake with it Jo. :)

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