Sunday, March 19, 2017

catskinner's book 1: My Analysis

You know it's bad to judge a book by its cover, although we do it all the time. So here's an experiment: Quick, look the cover art on the right and tell me (well, you know what I mean) your first thoughts. Be as prejudiced and superficial as you want.

If you had to guess its genre, style, or typology, what would it be? Emo poetry? A gothic novel pastiche? The autobiography of a gardener gone mad? Well, whatever it was, I'm sure it wasn't "a thriller starring a paranormal symbiote -a human with a predatorial daemon inside his head- and parasitic alien entities, with spirit-driven genetic engineering and X-files levels of cover-ups."

I don't know why Misha Burnett chose that cover style or what hidden symbolism lies behind them or their titles, but if he ever wants to change the vibe, he could try to imitate one of those Shudder Pulp covers, with an almost naked damsel chained to an operation table, ready to be dissected by a demented doctor while the hero struggles with the mad doctor's mutated underlings. And it would be somewhat close to a real scene from the book.

I mention this in case a random person with no knowledge of the book is reading this. Sure, the short Amazon synopsis for this book will dispell any possible genre confusion or mislabel, but you'd be surprised how many people don't even read that. Having said all that, let's jump into the meat of our business.

James Ozwryck (pronounce Awesig -not his real surname, by the way-) is a young introvert who works at a run-down hardware store and occasionally dreams of living a more fulfilling life someday. That would be common stuff for a tale about the woes and anxieties of a blue-collar worker, if it weren't for the fact that the store is a front, James is a professional hitman with abnormal strength, and, oddly enough, he has never killed anybody. At least he likes to think so. 

It's actually the demonic-like entity living inside and alongside him, called catskinner (lower case, it's important) who takes control of his (their?) body when someone needs to die or some unnatural feat of speed and strength is required. Also, his boss, Victor, who provides him with the targets, doesn't sleep, is ugly as hell, lives in a giant fridge which doubles as an office, and is probably undead. 

I must note that that weirdness isn't the plot or the events that trigger the story. That's the introduction, -his normal life- which theoretically could have gone on like that forever if it had not been for Victor's (and almost his own too) murder. This story is therefore not your average "normal man's life is upturned and thrown into disarray by unknown forces;" it already starts weird, and then it gets even weirder. The fantastic elements in his life, which James had taken for granted as personal idiosyncrasies, are revealed as being part of a bigger whole (although it is quickly stated that very little of its true nature is really known.) In other words, he is not the only freak in town.

You could say that the story is also about James changing and maturing, and leaving his mind-numbing apathy behind, something that is triggered by two events: Victor's murder (who had been his guardian as well as his exploiter,) and meeting Godiva. The first incident forces him to go beyond the brutal (but predictable and comfortable) realities of his life as someone else's tool, and the second gives him someone beyond himself to care about.

Godiva, who is also not entirely human, many not be your standard romantic partner, and it's probably not what James would have chosen (even though it superficially *looks* like your typical male fantasy,) but from a storytelling point of view, it works like one. She humanizes James, gives him someone to care about and a reason to live beyond simple survival (that's catskinner existential imperative/function, anyway.) They may be a pair of freak weirdos, but they make a lovely couple nonetheless. I'm not sure I want to see them naked, though.

"Disappointed" would be too big a word, but it was a bit of a letdown that the story didn't follow some threads it had hinted at the beginning, not necessarily because the new direction it took was the wrong one, but because I think the other would have been superior. The story started a bit like a mystery drama, with a few touches of hardboiled urban survival thrown in the mix. There were three specific mysteries to solve: (1) Victor's murder, (2) whatever was stolen from Victor's safe, and (3) how was James/catskinner incapacitated with an apparently magical sigil. That final one may not be very important since it is probably just a plot device to avoid a fight so soon, but it still has important worldbuilding implications concerning what powers some people (and entities) seem to possess there. The description of the consequences of that sigil is also one of the best scenes of the book, so there's that too.

The third one can be dismissed then, but I find it odd that the first seems to disappear so quickly from James' mind (or so it seemed to me) and that the second becomes almost a footnote, especially since the contents of the safe are mentioned (The Book of Thoth), and they seemed important enough. After that point, James loses a bit of its agency as the main character/investigator, and he is carried along by what happens (and crashes) around him and the people he finds along the way, usually after a fight, when allies, new or old, appear or disappear. And since he is not the only main character (there's also catskinner there,) this downplays him even more. That is, by the way, something James hints at the end of the book:

"What's been happening to me lately has not been conversations. What's been happening is that people make bizarre enigmatic little comments in my general direction, and weird crap comes out of nowhere and tries to kill me. And then when I say, hey, how come weird crap keeps coming out of nowhere and trying to kill me? everybody tells me I don't understand what's going on."
Even the emotionally-stunted psychopath inside his head seems to know much more about what is going on (and, oddly enough, it apparently chooses not to disclose it,) than him.

After that, an explanation is given, although I think it would have worked better if it happened earlier (there is no big revelation anyway,) especially since the end is somewhat abrupt (although not unfulfilling) and a few pages more to build a good hook for the next book (e.g. hints of a future problem) would have helped.

It is in the sense of investigation and discovery, and in the dialogues that shine a light on the nature of this supernatural world, where I believe the book excels. In fact, my favorite moments were the dialogues with those at the edge of that supernatural world (e.g. with Russwind, about his past.)

In any event, the crux of the story is the James/catskinner duo, and not surprisingly the series is named after the second since it is the mystery surrounding that strange entity what moves the whole plot and, to a considerable degree, the reader's interest. The interactions between the two of them are also some of the most amusing moments, especially because they are embedded as part of the narration itself. This book is written from a first-person narrative, but the trick is that there are actually two entities watching, and they both share the same point of view (James' eyes.) catskinner's comments and thought processes (although not all of them, probably) are part of the narration itself and they are written in italics*. This means that sometimes the narrator himself speaks directly to another character (catskinner,) engaging in a conversation that appears as part of the narration and only they (and us) see.

*And with an uncommon punctuation. It never uses upper-case letters, not even when using the pronoun I. i once met a person who wrote like that on-line, and he was edgy in extreme, quite unhinged and seemed possessed, so I guess bad grammar and a bizarre punctuation sometimes may be a sign of daemonic influence! It may explain a few things about Twitter, at the very least.
[*extra: I just realized the whole cover of the book is written using catskinner's style]

I thought that was a neat literary experiment, and I would not have minded (in fact, I would have enjoyed it,) if Burnett had decided to be even more experimental while playing with the limits of traditional narratives. And speaking of which, I was pleased that the story avoided the usual pitfalls of many postmodern stories: the temptation of self-referentialism and going excessively meta all the way down. Since this is a story that could have gone from zero to Philip K. Dick in 2.5 seconds, I was pleased to see that there was little of that nonsense. Although the "entities" that are behind the whole mess clearly dance and play with the limits of madness and reality, those nonetheless exist. James may be confused because he doesn't understand what is going on, but he knows perfectly well that what is going on is real and that there is something to understand.

And even if the mystery isn't yet explained, and the names (if they have any) and goals of the hidden forces are not yet revealed, the intrigue is strong enough to compel me to read the next books.


  1. I'm halfway through the second book, and finding it is slower than the first and lacks the strong hooks of Victor's murder and the mystery of James' parents. It seems to dwell far more on the lives of the people in the strange shadow-world, with only an unknown threat hanging overhead. Knowing this is a four-book-long series helps with that, though. I trust Misha to wrap things up in their own due time.

    Misha is making me enjoy New Wave writing. In my book that makes him the real monster!

  2. Thank you. I worked very hard at sticking to a straightforward linear narrative structure because my main influences (Samuel Delany, William Burroughs, Philip Dick) all tend to play games with structure and loose a lot of readers that way. I wanted to show that a New Wave story could be told in a rational sequence.

    And I know that Sci Fi/Fantasy fans tend to hate my covers, but I've found that many readers who are not traditional SFF fans really like them. As I've said elsewhere, I've picked up a lot of readers who are turned off by what they think SFF means.

    And, Jon, in my opinion "Cannibal Hearts" is the weakest of the books. A bit of sophomore slump, I'm afraid.