Recently released from Roc, Cherry Bomb is the last installment in the Siobhan Quinn novels—Caitlin R. Kiernan’s parodic urban fantasy arc, written under the pseudonym Kathleen Tierney. Following on the heels of the satirical and engaging Blood Oranges (2013, review here) and its sequel Red Delicious (2014, review here), Cherry Bomb is a ghoul-infested and horror-inflected closer.
Quinn has been out of the paranormal loop for some time, lying low in New York, until she meets and gets involved with a young woman—Selwyn Throckmorton—who’s got a world of trouble coming down on her head. Another eldritch artifact and planes of being far beyond (or below) the basic mortal sprawl are unfortunately involved, and Quinn’s stuck once again in the middle.
The author’s note that closes Cherry Bomb is perhaps, paradoxically, the best place to start: Kiernan writes, “With this novel I conclude a trip that has been long and strange, indeed, and which has had a few highs and some truly astounding lows. It has been an experiment, and, admittedly, not one I can declare a success, but, as Mr. Vonnegut said, ‘And so it goes.’ […] At the very least, I hope you had fun.”
And, as a reader who was enthusiastic about the project of Blood Oranges and the freshness I saw in its balance of satire and sincerity, I have no trouble saying that I had fun with this trio of novels. It was, as she notes in her sign-off, not the project Kiernan anticipated it would be. The vagaries of publishing and the amount of investment a trilogy requires as compared to a one-off, particularly in a satirical vein, weighed—seemingly in a heavy fashion—on the conclusion of this tale and the enthusiasm of its execution.
Nonetheless, it was a fast and gruesome read that tied off some ends and opened up a host of others in a way that I found appropriate to the preceding novels—and also satisfying. The project of the Quinn novels has, from the beginning, been introducing an element of realism to the occasionally-twee world of the urban fantasy landscape. Which is not to say that Cherry Bomb and its companions are just doing the “grit and grim!” thing, because the realism has far more to do with the nature of narrative and the jumbled, dishonest, fractured experience of life most people actually have.
In a genre that functions primarily through unexamined first-person narratives that seek to appear as transparent and direct as glass, that’s something interesting, and it’s still good work in this last installment. The attention to language, narrative structure, and memory in these books is what makes them notable—perhaps more so than the black humor and the foul-mouthed, tongue-in-cheek representation of undead life, thought that’s also and always got its perks.
So, as a part of the project of these novels, Cherry Bomb does a good job: I particularly appreciated the intentional anticlimax of the ending, the sense that there’s no dramatic final battle—or that what there is of one is mostly happenstance and unsatisfying and pyrrhic. It’s gross and sad, not a meeting of the best big bad wolves where our hero comes out gloriously on top. It’s Isaac Snow trying to stuff his dead twin’s brains back in her head after Quinn has shot her, and it’s a godlike being shrugging its shoulders and saying things happened this way because it didn’t care to change them.
There’s no payoff: just loss, and survival, and dragging along afterwards like the walking wounded. (Or so we assume, since Quinn is still writing this for the reader after the fact.) The buildup is also paced in a fascinatingly realist manner; throughout the novel, the plot progresses in fits and starts, sudden bursts and then gaps of time and things just happening. There are asides and instances of connection, but for the most part, things are left unresolved. The world of the novels is clearly more exponential in scope than Quinn could ever hope to approach, also. This isn’t the case of a protagonist who becomes top dog in a supernatural world (see Anita Blake, others) but rather the story of one person(-ish) in a world full of others.
The sense of a “love” story also doesn’t come through, which seems both intentional and apropos. Quinn might love Selwyn, but we don’t get much of the stuff that usually comes as part of those sorts of stories: not a lot of pleasantries, more dishonesty and mayhem. There’s also not much of the sense that it would have been a successful relationship even without the catastrophic fallout of the climax and Selwyn’s death. The other two novels had mostly avoided the concept of long-term romantic entanglement; this one gives a more horrific version of the thing it would probably really be like, in this sort of world with these sorts of monsters.
And the word horror has come up a couple of times for a reason also: this feels far more like an urban fantasy novel that has shifted hard back to its roots in the genre of monsters. While the prior novels feel like parodies of the genre, this one feels like it’s skirting the cusp of a different type of story entirely: there’s more in the vein of gore and misery and ghoulishness (literally) than the previous installments. That does work, though, and gives this conclusion the bleak tone it seemed to be aiming for.
Overall, as a trio, I’d still recommend giving these books a read. While the first remains the most enthusiastic and engaging, the following two are also decent reads, and this one gives us the conclusion that makes the most sense: not much of one at all, just a series of losses and victories that don’t seem to count for a lot. It’s a solid choice, one that finished the thematic arc and the commentary inherent in the satirical bent of the series. These novels function on two levels—the intellectual project of sending up a genre that’s rich for the making-fun-of, and the entertainment of a bunch of violent mystery romps. Sometimes the first wins out over the second, which is perhaps not to every reader’s taste, but it was to mine, and it was a project I appreciated Kiernan taking on. And it’s certainly unique.
Like I said: I had fun.
Cherry Bomb is available now from Penguin Books.
Brit 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.