I had to laugh a bit at the timing as I finished up reading Shade by John Olson, because I took a break to watch SOUTH PARK spoof TWILIGHT (the teen vamp flick based on the insanely popular books). Tonight's episode featured some of my fave, though rarely reoccurring, characters--The Goth Kids. The story had the Goth Kids--with their nihilism, smoking, black hair, Gothwear, and desire to non-conform in full display--taking umbrage at the similarities (and increasing popularity) of the Vamp kids (whom everyone else just calls Goth cause they dress similarly). Vamp kids don't smoke, don't drink coffee, and wear fake plastic fangs. Goth kids think they're losers in Gothwear.
In SHADE, we see Goth kids and Vamp kids. And plastic fangs. So, I chuckled.
As someone who likes the Goth look (hence my most recent cinematic crush on Prince Nuada Silverlance of HELLBOY II: The Golden Army and his terrifically extreme pallor, white-blond hair, black leather, silver accoutrements, and black lips), and Goth music, and the melancholia that runs through the Gothiness of it all (I am, after all, a gal plagued by depression since the age of 9)--well, I loved having a Christian novel not simply add a Goth character, but depict a Gothy subculture as an ongoing part of the plot. If I weren't too old for jet black hair and fishnet, I'd so be there.
So, what is Shade about?
The usual things of contemporary dark fantasy with a Christian worldview: good, evil, heroes, villains, prophecies, hunter and hunted, and the real existence of another sphere of existence beyond the material/scientific, and the power of prayer and faith and a good heart in the face of overwhelming odds.
Or, more plot-related: Grad science student flips out when she experiences a psychic and physical attack (or does she?) and is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. But the homeless man who repeatedly saves her from her "episodes" may be proof she's not crazy (or that they both are). He believes they are playing out a prophesied scenario in a fight against a terrible evil. Well, our grad student is gonna have to find out which is which--madness or supernatural goings on-- because her life is becoming a mounting ruin and corpses are piling up around her. Plus, there's a too-too-seductive tycoon who has a whole lot of interest in both her and her homeless protector.
We follow four principal characters:
~~ Melchi, who is homeless, huge, frighteningly fast, agile and strong, and childlike in his sense of self and good/evil. He is the ascetic, the spiritual seeker mortifying flesh while enriching the mind with classics (John Milton's work plays a part, as does Bram Stoker's). He lives like a wildman, like a crazy man, uneducated and often hungry and thirsty; but he sees some things much more clearly than the sane and the educated and the well-fed and finely-housed.
~~Hailey, a grad student in biochemistry whose life spirals into a crazy whirlwind of violence and possible hallucinations. She doesn't know if she's mad or being initiated into something much more horrible than madness itself. She wants to be rational, but rising irrationality around her makes her the focal point of events that are beyond her control.
~~Athena, the Goth girl with street smarts and Gypsy heritage. Her Goth crew also falls into the darkness swirling in San Francisco, so that her path crisscrosses--and sometimes smashes--into that of Melchi and Hailey. Her cleverness and gumption are her major modes of survival when things go all to hell.
~~Sabazios Vladu, the guy you are going to inevitably compare to Vlad Dracul. But we guess he is more than a mysterious, suave, seductive, wealthy, dangerous pursuer in the vampire mode.
Those are the main players. Supporting we have a genius scientist named Boggs who, like Hailey and some other characters, have faith (at varying places and levels) and become part of the mess on the side of good. There's also a detective who from the start makes us want to ask for Columbo, instead. Homeless folks help out. And a bookstore owner (cause, yeah, we love books, so a bookstore lady has gotta be good, right?)
The strongest part of the story is Melchi. His character is always interesting when he's center stage. The prologue with him undergoing rigorous training against the foe is a great hook. Because we start in pretty much in the heat of action, the story's pace is fast. For those who like action/thrillers/zooming narrative, you can have that with Shade
The weakest is Hailey. She's downright annoying. She's pretty stupid for a supposedly smart girl. I never find her utterly believable, and don't find her at all sympathetic until nearly toward the finale. I kept asking myself, "Why is this character not working for me?" I wanted to get at the reason I just didn't care if someone mashed her over the head so she could stop being a selfish whiny idjit. I may have to reread to figure that out, but it may be that while there is a certain consistency and graspability about Melchi's "self"--even though he is almost the LEAST realistic character in so many ways--Hailey remains this sort of undefined presence that is always tripping over her feet and needing to be rescued and never really feeling like someone with a mind trained to analyze, sort, come up with good theories, etc. In other words, I never believed she was a scientist or even all that bright. I think I really needed to see her, yes, confused about her life and state of mind, but also processing, processing, processing with as much rationality as a trained mind would.
(Below, the attractive Mr. Olson.)
So, what did I want from Hailey?
I needed her to be more like the set-up: smart, even if deranged. I mean, maybe more along the lines of that nutjob dad in FRINGE--yes, he's nuts, but he works things through and comes to amazing conclusions. I needed her to work things through and show herself a person who wasn't so flaky and self-centered, even if maybe paranoid schizo (if that makes sense.) Or if she was going to be selfish and a flake, to somehow be also really bright and observant and maybe funny. A balance.
Although, it does suddenly occur to me that consistency of STATED characterization may be a problem. Both Hailey and Boggs are supposed to be the smart gals here, but the quick-thinking Athena outshines them in the smarts department. We see one instance of Boggs being scientist-ty (and I liked it a lot, too), and then she stopped being that character and became this sort of, "I come when called like a chauffeur or butler" person. That irked me. I wanted her to be consistently the genius I'm told over and over she is. And so with Hailey, when we see her at the start, she's supposed to be bright, but also a bit unassertive and the goody-goody-girl. There was this hint of something in her past (but we don't get that backstory). I even wondered if she had been raped/assaulted by the whole way she behaved with the "date" in the opening. That went nowhere, though. And maybe that is part of my problem with her: Expectations set up; then fuzzied out.
And I really wanted to tel her to get good athletic shoes so she'd stop tripping over every rock in sight. :)
If Hailey's character had come up to the level of sharp delineation and distinctiveness as Melchi's, if she had invoked more sympathy in me, this book would just have skyrocketed to another level for me. If she had worked, the romantic element itself would have soared. But the romance stumbled in places because she just really...well...I didn't think she deserved the guy for most of the book.
So, out of the three gals we see a lot, only one worked for me. Because she seemed more real.
And even with Hailey limping along (in more ways than one), the story worked as this dark urban action-fantasy for me. (And urban fantasy is definitely a place I like to sink my teeth into. Pardon the Vladdy pun.)
Gals are gonna love Melchi, who is not a typical romantic hero (given the stench and poor grooming and that whole living in a crime-riddled park thing). But nobility of spirit overcomes even that...in fiction, anyway. And there are some lovely moments that warm your heart here.
Athena was cool. I like her. She's like this urchin who won't give up and can play people. How she works out some problems is interesting and fun. We sympathize loads with her. Well, I did.
Sabazios (pronounced like that oily gland in people: sebacious) needed a tad more oomph, too. He was hypnotic (especially to Hailey), and he had some interesting system going (won't spoiler it for ya), but someone of that, er, stature in baddiness seemed a bit less interesting than he should have been in certain situation. I actually wanted to hear more about why he liked Woolf so much. :)
The sense of paranoia is nicely done. We do sense that, sorta like X Files, we should trust no one, or nearly no one. As it should be in a thriller.
The ending--which rocked at some levels!--while having a sufficient sense of "closure" to make it satisfying, definitely leaves a door open. This screams for a next installment. And I'll be buying it, especially if Melchi and Athena, the gutsy gypsy, are back.
I think you should pick it up and give it a try if you're a fantasy fan or a thriller fan.
Or maybe you just wanna root for the scrappy Goth Girl and the sexy homeless hero. (And feel free to root for the ditz heroine. I won't hold it againt you.)
No, really. Buy it. Support Christian urban fantasy so Big Mama Mir has more of it to read in future. Really!
If you'd like to join the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour, visit the site: CSFF official site.
EDITED TO ADD: I noticed over at Shannon's blog in her review of SHADE that she says it's not as scary as touted. I agree. I think some scenes have a terrific tension and that rising sense of paranoia (appropriate for the theme) works. But it's not like one of those that keeps you sleeping with the light on types of scary novels. It's got tension, not out and out frights.
And I agree with Becky Miller that the conversion scene seemed out of the blue and the finale rushed. But I do think the author set up the character's obsession with LAW over GRACE sufficiently to explore that aspect at some point. I do think it needed a bit more space, or at least to have come up once or twice (no matter how slightly) in conversation, so that it was set-up for the confrontation when it came.