A writer I respect recommended this book with the strong warning that, “For my pisanos that like to keep things pg-13, you might want to skip this. Everyone else needs to give it a go.” I’m not going to name him, because despite all evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t think his literary criticism will produce anything useful. Well, I’m one of those pisanos who likes to keep things PG-13, but selected this book based largely on the strength of that glowing review. I’m a big boy – I can stomach a few quirky scenes, and I’m glad I did, because this book was fantastic.
My one sentence review goes like this:
This is the story that Neil Gaiman would write if he could ditch the po-mo tedium and write without sounding like a pretentious ass for once in his lifeHere we are on day one, and I’m going to blow the ending of this story. If you want to dive into this book knowing nothing about it save what’s on the cover – and if my experience is anything to go by, you do! – stop checking out this blog until you’ve read the book, because there’s a lot to spoil, and I’m going to spoil it all right here on March first. (See also: Our spoiler policy.)
This book features a young man whose cultist parents fused him to a murderous entity of pure thought exploring a strange world-behind-the-world with a transgender plant man-woman…thing? When his little corner of this world blows up, James/Adam is forced to learn more and we follow him as he investigates both this strange world and his own history, and tries to solve the murder of his boss. In the end, he signs up with one faction within this dark earth and agrees to run a storefront that serves as a sort of Sam’s Place/Casablanca for the supernatural.
Catskinner’s Book is a now-classic story of the modern world overlying a hidden underworld populated by all sorts of supernatural critters that somehow manage to escape the notice of the bulk of the normie population. That whole world also escape the notice of our hero, Adam/James, even though he serves as a sort of host for one of the more powerful supernatural entities around. It’s a fine line to walk, and rare is the author who manages to tread it as well as Burnette does here. He does make use of the standard, “normies only see what they want to see” trope, but he also keeps most of the really obvious brutality in-house. That is to say, that most of the really crazy super-natural fights occur between supernatural factions in out of the way places where they go largely un-noticed. So it works, and is more believable than usual.
Part of the reason that the actions of these weird monsters is so believable might be that they all have a common origin. Part of the reason might be that none of them are simple new takes on old creatures. There are no vampires or werewolves or vampiric werewolves or werewolves, but they have a different name like lycan or caninemen or siriusians or what have you. None of that. Just a bunch of weird and original things with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. It’s a refreshing change from the ordinary.
The setting is great, the creatures fresh, and the action fast and furious. Where the book really shines is the characters. They all behave in believable ways – a neat feat given that one of the protagonists is a relentless and powerful parasite/demon of pure thought. You instinctively dislike the bad ones and feel enough sympathy to root for those caught up in a fight not of their own choosing. And so, my focus this month is going to be on the characters. One at a time, I’m going to look at them, what they do, and why they work so well.
One more warning - some of these conversations need to be handled with a certain level of maturity and sympathy and for that I'm really, REALLY not your Huckleberry. If you can't handle a man using inappropriate and over the top humor as an armor to discuss serious subjects...you might want to give my posts this month a miss. I'm a conservative guy who doesn't handle sensitive topics of victimology well, and some of the ways that I've justified (to myself) an appreciation for this book won't earn me any friends on the Oscar stage, if you know what I mean.
If you want to read a few words from the author himself, the Castalia House Blog stole a little bit of our thunder* by posting an interview with Misha earlier this week. It's a great read - find it here.
There’s a chance for an interesting conversation here about the New Wave stylings of Mr. Burnette, and how they jive with the Pulp Revolution, but I’m going to leave that conversation to others. To be frank, I just don’t have enough grounding in New Wave sci-fi to be able to speak about without sounding like Neil Gaiman, and we all know what he sounds like!
*And good for them, Misha deserves more press than he gets. That's part of why I chose his book as the March Puppy.