This review is based on an ARC given to me for free by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. This does not in any way affect my review. The book is slated for release on May 2, 2017.
This book is second in a series. Therefore, it may contain references to events in the first book, An Accident of Stars, which may be considered spoilers for said book. Please read An Accident of Stars before reading this review.
I will admit: I am one of those people who reacts emotionally to the books I read. I don’t show such reactions publicly, of course: my poker face has been honed by years and years of reading smutty fan fiction out in the open. But beneath my seemingly-unperturbed expression there is much emotional turbulence: plenty of screaming, arm-flailing, and rapid-fire bilingual cursing. Sometimes those reactions are indicative of a very good read; other times, they are indicative of a very bad one – it really all depends on which buttons the book in question presses. But in the best-case scenario, I am reacting the way I do because I am reading a very good book. In the best best-case scenario, I am reacting to a book that has dug down deep and forced me to break my poker face – to the point that I need to seek the nearest bathroom to use as a hiding place because I am at work and therefore cannot simply lock the door like I would at home and bawl my eyes out.
I sometimes find it difficult to manage expectations for the books I read. I attribute this partly to something my professors at university told me: that writers should always write with the best possible reader in mind. By this, they were suggesting that any writer must always assume that the reader that picks up his or her book will be of the sharp, erudite sort who is also generally intolerant of lapses in writing quality. Writers must always turn out the best work they possibly can, so my professors insisted, because they can never know who will read their work, and so they must always imagine that that imaginary reader will be smart enough to notice all the potential weak points in their writing and call them out on it.
As a reader, therefore, the above thought process means that I always assume any book I read will be the best possible job a writer can do – that said writer is writing with the best possible reader in mind. While I am not presumptuous enough to imagine that I am that idealised reader, I do like to think that, in pursuit of such writing excellence, the writer has at least attempted to do as good a job as he or she possibly can.
If there is any city in the United States that might truly be touched by magic, it is New Orleans. With its near-seamless blend of French, Cajun, and African influences, New Orleans is both unlike much of the rest of the United States, and also deeply enmeshed in it. That connection – present, and yet in some ways almost tenuous – makes New Orleans an appealing setting for writers interested in telling stories with supernatural elements. The most well-known of these writers is Anne Rice, whose novel Interview With the Vampire takes place in various time periods and locations, but mostly in New Orleans (where, incidentally, the film adaptation was also filmed). Nowadays anyone interested in Rice’s novels can take a “vampire tour” around New Orleans, many of which include shooting locations from the film.
Like many other readers, I became enchanted with New Orleans after reading Rice’s novels in high school, and then later on in university, when I picked up Poppy Z. Brite’s Liquor and Prime at the encouragement of one of my good friends. However, it has been a good long while since I read about the city as a setting for a novel, so when I came across The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad, I decided to pick it up and revisit what is, to me, the most interesting city in the United States.
Nowadays, the term “dark fairytale” appears to have gained a certain kind of cachet, since it tend to be attached to a lot of media with a hype train a mile long. Of course, to define this term it is important to understand what its two components mean. I am certain folklorists and scholars can argue over the finer points of what makes a fairytale, but in general, a fairytale is a short story featuring fantastical elements like folkloric figures (hence “fairytale”, since fairies are out of folklore and myth), with clearly good and clearly evil characters, most of which fall into some kind of archetypical mould.
However, in many cases the oldest versions of fairytales were remarkably bloody and gory – a reflection, no doubt, of the dangers and difficulties of the lives of the people who told those stories in the first place. Take, for example, the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, which features the Evil Queen eating the heart of a deer thinking it was Snow White’s, and said Evil Queen eventually punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dancing herself to death. Compare that with the version that Disney put onscreen in 1937: no hearts are eaten and no Evil Queens are forced to dance to death. Since then, eliminating the bloodier details of fairytales has been de rigueur for Disney’s adaptations, and the subsequent popularity of such films has not only turned Disney into a media juggernaut, but has literally defined the term “fairytale” in popular culture.
When I read a novel, I have a kind of mental checklist of things to look for while I read. That list includes things like setting, characterisation, plot, narrative flow, prosody, themes – basically, all the things that I think are essential to a good story. Sometimes some parts are better than others: for instance, the setting might be beautifully built, but if the characters aren’t up to snuff, that lowers the quality of the book in my eyes. Or the plot may be perfectly paced and exciting to read about, but if the themes are not fully fleshed out or, worse, objectionable, then my opinion of the book goes down accordingly. Of course, these things tend to balance things out: great writing can sometimes make up for a poorly-built world, or fantastic characters can occasionally make a lacklustre plot more bearable.
But not all novels fit easily into this checklist. Sometimes a novel isn’t necessarily about telling a story, and is instead more concerned with experimenting with narrative, for example. Such novels can be hard to pick apart, and in such cases it becomes important to look for other parameters to use for measuring the novel’s quality.