Daniel José Older’s short story collection Salsa Nocturna gave us a taste of what today’s urban fantasy should be: gritty, supernatural elements intrinsically woven into the sociopolitical highs and lows of modern urban life. In Older’s magical universe, the effects of gentrification, racism, and the economic squeeze faced by the 99% matter as much as demonic possession and murderous ghosts. That collection also introduced readers to Carlos Delacruz, the half-living, half-dead Puerto Rican with a penchant for resolving ghostly disputes under the authority of the New York Council of the Dead.
In Older’s debut novel Half-Resurrection Blues, Carlos returns as the same Malagueña-smoking, cane-sword-swinging “inbetweener” on a case with world-changing consequences. He’s been working for the NYCOD for a couple of years, but can’t remember anything from his living life before he died. Plus, he’s always believed he was the only inbetweener in existence—until he runs into another halfie on New Year’s Eve.
(Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Older before on panels but he did not approach me about reviewing this book.)
In Prospect Park, Trevor the halfie entices some frat boys to enter the Underworld with him, which is a major no-no to the Council. Carlos ends up offing Trevor in the line of duty. Soon, a tangential problem arises in the form of a spiritual infestation more fearsome than bed bugs. Supernatural imp-like demons called ngks invade a Crown Heights neighborhood. These pests suck up all spiritual energy in the wake of a disaster, and their appearance threaten the well-being of Carlo’s friend, house ghost Mama Esther. They also show up as a warning sign right before major tragedy strikes. Carlos must puzzle out the mystery behind Trevor’s existence—and along the way, falls for his half-dead sister Sasha—while simultaneously dealing with the ngks. Both problems take him down a dark path that ultimately connects to his former life.
From the white hipsters plaguing Park Slope to the mad festivities of West Indian Day, today’s Brooklyn leaps right off the page in an immediate, relatable way. Profanity is applied liberally throughout the dialogue, but doesn’t distract at any point. The secondary cast is are also fully-developed roles that entertain and delight. The no-nonsense Kia, high school daughter of the santerna priest Baba Eddie, has some of the best quips with Carlos. His ghost colleagues Riley and Dros, and the paramedic Victor are also standouts.
One of the most engaging draws of the book is how Carlos’s struggle as he tries to bring between both worlds living and dead. There is a moment where he gets tempted to join the forces of the darkness, and I enjoyed how close that temptation comes. I look forward to seeing if Carlos ever crosses that line in future installments.
What remains a bit mysterious are some aspects of Older’s worldbuilding. The NYCOD is a believable quagmire of stunted bureaucracy and inefficiency, yet I wonder if and how Carlos gets paid as its only quasi-living member. Santera plays a spiritual—religious and literal—role in the book, but what about other faith denominations? The majority of the action is in Crown Heights and there is one significant Hasidic Jewish character, so I’d be intrigued if his community had any mystical defenses of their own against the ngks. And why does the antagonist choose Brooklyn as the site of his evil machinations? While I enjoy the answer of “Why not?” for the sake of re-locating NYC-located stories beyond Manhattan, I also wanted a solid logistical reason.
Half-Resurrection Blues plants a lot of questions and answers just enough to be satisfied by the book’s conclusion. Older’s previous short works had shown promising talent, and his novel shows a strong start to his novel-writing career.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker (or in other speculative lights, Diana M. Pho) works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets. Oh wait, she has a tumblr too.