As Red Delicious makes abundantly clear from the start, Siobhan Quinn the werepire has a lot of problems: monster hunting ex-priests, succubi, and her own mile-wide self-destructive streak to name a few. When her handler and keeper, Mr. B, tells her to look into the missing daughter of one of Providence’s oldest necromantic families, things do not go well, possibly because she’s no detective and possibly because there’s far more at stake than the apparent disappearance. The story that follows is, of course, of questionable provenance—as Quinn frequently reminds the reader, she lies constantly—but it is entertaining.
Red Delicious follows on the heels of 2013’s Blood Oranges (reviewed here), of which I was fairly fond. These novels are a fine balance between parodying urban fantasy and being urban fantasy: a little grim and a lot tongue-in-cheek, Quinn as narrator never allows the reader to forget for particularly long that they’re reading a book, with all of the regular fourth-wall breaking that that implies.
And she’s not particularly fond of the genre that her book falls in, either.
Blood Oranges set the pace for this series: parodic urban fantasy, set in a grimy and unpleasant alternate version of Providence, with a cast almost entirely full of queer characters of various stripes. Red Delicious follows that pattern, though offering a fresh story and further developments in the world of Quinn the Twice-Damned. The reader is still being told Quinn’s story from some point in the future—for some purpose, presumably, but that’s one of the things that hasn’t come clear yet and likely won’t until the series ends.
Of course, as we’re continually reminded throughout the book, Quinn lives to disrupt our narrative expectations, because real life isn’t like a novel. That’s one of the prose tactics I found most interesting in this installment in the series: the refusal to follow narrative conventions, particularly in terms of the ending’s structure. It all sort of happens at once, with a strange amount of serendipity. As Quinn notes, in a book it would seem like deus ex machina (the irony is obvious, of course, since it is a book).
These asides—on novelistic tropes and structures—read the most like Kiernan speaking to the reader of anything in the book; they’re certainly a commentary on the adventure/mystery-plot structure typical to urban fantasy as a genre. Red Delicious walks the same tightrope as the first novel, in that it’s constantly employing the very tropes it’s railing against. For example, Quinn does, in fact, “suit up” for her big battle at the end with what amounts to a small armory. (This reads to me as an amusing dig at the Anita Blake series, though I suppose the “I carry a small army’s worth of weapons” thing is fairly ubiquitous now?) So, even though she’s commenting on the fact that really she doesn’t know how to use any of it, and that a succubus from another dimension will be wearing her body like a suit to employ the weapons… Well, it’s still happening.
That’s the strength of these books, I suspect: that while they are snide about the genre they participate in, poking fun in all the directions that fun likely should be poked, they’re still ultimately about a werepire hitman and supernatural politics. That’s what I appreciated most about Blood Oranges, and though the balance between the two doesn’t hold as strong here—more on that in a moment—it’s still a draw. I haven’t read a single other book that takes on the weaknesses of urban fantasy while also reflecting and using its tropes to tell wickedly entertaining stories at the same time.
And in this second book, the better part is actually the story—rather than the parodic asides and Quinn’s vociferous hate for “sexy” monsters. Partially this is because there are a few jabs that lose their luster after repetition (I also think Twilight is good for a laugh, but only so many times); partially, it’s because Blood Oranges did the job of scene-setting the Quinn novels as parody. Red Delicious doesn’t have that space to work with—it’s already been set. Instead, the book has to continue past that comfortable initial space of parody to keep the reader engaged.
It mostly succeeds. The mild criticism I would have of Red Delicious is that—as with the Twilight references—sometimes there’s more repetition than is necessary or entirely benefits the book. Some of these repetitions work well as Quinn being Quinn, such as the regular reminders not to believe a single word she’s saying, or the spaces where she tells us a digressive story for purposes that we’re left to figure out throughout the book (and then notes that it’s a digression). Others seem to have less heft in their reoccurrence; for example, there are several points where we’re reminded that drop-outs can know big words, or know things about science, or know things about narrative. Those tend to wear thin—the point’s been made, and made again.
Despite that quibble, it is a second novel that’s doing hard work—for anyone who doesn’t think so, ongoing clever and engaging parody is not a simple task—and it definitively still kept me turning pages. Quinn’s life is appropriately slipshod, her detective methods not worth being called that, and the resolutions of conflicts often seem arbitrary and very human: these narrative factors are where the humor is strongest, this time around. The intentional disruption of the tropes of the genre is amusing and requires a familiar eye to recognize them: for example, some things tend to be serendipitous in UF novels, like enemies always working together somehow or the threads “uniting” at the end—which they don’t, here. The ex-priest hassle is just his own problem; the mystical object was with the goth-girl lackey the whole time and nobody even knew about it.
The big battles, too, aren’t big battles in the sense a reader might expect. There’s a lot of handwaving as opposed to blow-by-blow action scenes that draw out for chapters on end. It’s intentionally unsatisfying in terms of its action-quotient, but for that more satisfying as a story that is trying to feel real in a genre predominantly full of fun, unreal fiction. Quinn’s life is rough, and she’s actually foul-mouthed as opposed to merely dropping the occasional “fuck” like many illustrious monster-hunting heroines. As in, she’s actually trying to be offensive some of the time—or she just is, no matter what. She, for example, uses the slur “tranny” pretty regularly to describe Mr. B’s associates; she’s also wickedly rude about the fact that a summoning accident gifted the missing girl she does eventually find with a penis, etc. Of course, there is a level at which this is all also coming from a self-aware place, as readers familiar with Kiernan’s work will note, though I do wonder how someone unfamiliar might react. (Then again, as the author’s note at the beginning of the book makes clear: this ain’t for everyone, and it’s intentionally not for everyone.)
It’s a good read—fast paced, yes, but also full of digressions (including a whole separate short story in the middle that is actually very important). It’s told to us by a liar, about other liars. The same raw charm that I loved in Blood Oranges is alive and well here. Also, I personally appreciate the fact that everything is so absurd in the course of the mystery of the magical dildo (no, seriously, that’s the artifact in question). As a reader of urban fantasy novels, I’m still on board with the Quinn books. They’re a rollicking good time to read, they’re witty and snide and wonderfully awful, and I admit: I’m still very curious about what comes next, now that Quinn’s an independent actor on the supernatural stage. Just enough parody, just enough narrative fiction—keeps the reader amused and engaged alike. Looking forward to more.
Red Delicious is available February 4th from Roc.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.