Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn’t quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it’s all hers — and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.
Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric’s heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means — magical or mundane — so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.
Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions — Aubrey, Eric’s devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities — Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she’ll have to learn the new rules fast — or break them completely….
Oh fucking shit, even the synopsis is terrible. “A self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities”? That giant human meat grinder is hungry for Daniel Abraham’s flesh.
My original intention was to give this the Charlaine Harris treatment.
I lasted until page sixty-three of 228 and only made it to a hundred-something by skimming rapidly. This is how formulaic this book is, a celebration of mediocrity, a wholesale embrace of formula, a love letter to drivel. This is what you would get if one were to put together a book like you assemble IKEA furniture. This is where creativity goes to die. A blackhole where no imagination lives. An endless desert of pedestrian prose. I could go on forever–it’d certainly be more entertaining than actually reading this book or, hell, reviewing it.
MLN Hanover is the pseudonym of one Daniel Abraham, or whatever his actual name is, just as James Corey is the pseudonym of the same. For some reason Abraham feels the need to put on a different name for writing cut-and-paste fantasy, cut-and-paste urban fantasy, and cut-and-paste SF, which doesn’t make sense until you consider that this is the practice of establishing yourself as a brand, or rather several brands. And to adopt a vaguely gender-neutral pseud, as a man, while writing in a genre dominated by women. That’s just a tiny bit skeevy, you know?
And it’s an apt line of thought, since Abraham’s urban fantasy is written in the most cynical way imaginable, the way David Eddings (may he rest in pieces) wrote fantasy. The way Zynga develops “games.” In just such a way Abraham grabs all the cliches of that already contemptible sub-genre, and manages to come up with something even more contemptible than the most tired of them–a clusterfuck where no cliche goes unused, no dead horse goes unflogged, such that the result might as well have been written by a chatbot. It’s that railroaded, so much so it’s difficult to imagine the man didn’t sit down and plot it out by checklist. Disaffected, twenty-something straight white woman? Who discovers a supernatural underworld secreted away from the mundanes? Finds out she has special powers? It’s all in there, with specific cultural touchstones that are incredibly, tiresomely American in that “my culture is a white blank void consisting of nothing but popular media” sort of way. Oh, except the protagonist has a French name bullshit made-up name, which people can’t pronounce right: Jayne (“Zha-nay”).
[Midian] repeated my name like he was tasting it. Zha-nay.
“French?” he asked.
“My mother’s side,” I said. “People usually say it like Jane or Janey.”
“Monolingual fuckwits,” he said, and sat up
Poor white lady.
In forty pages there isn’t one single solitary concept that hasn’t been seen before, and not a single solitary sentence that contains an exciting turn of phrase. Or even a single sentence that suggests Abraham is capable of anything better than hackneyed tone-deaf language. Except maybe this:
Eric reached up and plucked the sunglasses off the big sonofabitch. The black eyes met his. Eric pulled his will up from his crotch, up through his belly and his throat, pressing cold qi out through his gaze.
Is the ability to shoot cold cultural appropriation semen out of one’s eyes a cis male wish-fulfillment fantasy? Not that I’d object, since that’d lead to the men blinding themselves, but it’s sure a bit unusual, isn’t it? Takes “pissing contest” to a whole new level. Thankfully Eric dies within the prologue, sparing us all further crotch-eyeball-semen exploits.
By page fifty, there’s–never mind the Bechdel Test. There is no other named female character. Every single helpful person Zha-nay has met is a man. Ah, page fifty-six and there’s another named female character: Candace, damsel in distress who’s been desperately begging Zha-nay’s help because her dog has been acting weird and whose fiance has been beating her–at one point, she breaks into tears. Zha-nay has thus far only talked about her father and her sainted uncle, Eric Heller, and female family members appear to be nonexistent. I skimmed ahead to page eight-seven. Still no woman other than Zha-nay. Ninety-eight and we’ve got exposition about Aubrey’s wife that culminates in:
She was beautiful. She was well educated. She was married to the man I’d just fucked.
I kept skimming until page 131. Still no women! The lady lawyer returns on page 141 to have some speaking bits but remains conspicuously nameless–she’s just “the lawyer.” It’s only by page 158 where Aubrey’s wife, thankfully bestowed with a name, turns up with speaking parts and competence and everything, except she and Zha-nay talk about nothing but Aubrey, a man.
Bless Daniel Abraham, that feminist.
(Did someone tell him Joss Whedon is the Father of Feminism? Except I think the pilot episode of Firefly has more than two women in it. Low bars, Abraham, and you can’t even be arsed to step over them. Even Anita Blake has a grandmother she talks about occasionally! What is your problem, Abraham? Don’t care to put your money where your “feminist ally” tail-wagging is?)
No, wait, let’s try this:
“I was wondering if you were going to get up,” Midian said. “You aren’t Jewish or Muslim or anything fucked up like that, are you?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
In answer, he held up a package of bacon, his desiccated face taking on a querying expression.
“Yes, I’d love some bacon,” I said. “Thanks.”
What is your fucking problem, Daniel Abraham?
Bacon’s this cultural touchstone for Americans, so the joke here–we are meant to understand–is about “gee, how fucked up you’d have to be not to eat bacon!” But look at that. “You aren’t Jewish or Muslim or anything fucked up like that, are you?” This goes unremarked by the way–Zha-nay Whitey McWhite never thinks “wow, Midian is a bigoted asshole” or “hey, that’s not okay.” Once she understands the “joke” is about bacon and not about religion she brushes it off. It doesn’t offend her, of course. It doesn’t register, because she is Whitey McWhite whose greatest trial in life is that people can’t pronounce her stupid name right.
“Why would he think you’d fight against one of your own kind?” Ex asked.
“Jesus Christ, padre,” Midian said. “My own kind. Shit. Would you say that to a black guy? Or a Jew? I’m a rider, Coin’s a rider, that doesn’t make us buddies.
Yes, that’s the same character who cracked the joke about Muslims and Jews. Isn’t it clever? Is anyone laughing? He calls Chogyi Jake, who “looked vaguely Japanese,” the “tofu boy” incidentally. Ahhh, bigoted comedic relief, gotta love ‘em.
There’s an odd sequence where Zha-nay speculates that her dead uncle Eric must’ve been gay, because her father–some sort of fundie Christian bigot–denounced Eric:
“I just want you to know,” I said, “it’s okay with me that he was gay.”
“He was gay?”
“Um,” I said. “He wasn’t?”
I didn’t tell Aubrey that Dad had gathered us all in the living room—me, Mom, my older brother Jay, and Curtis the young one—and said that we weren’t to have anything to do with Uncle Eric anymore. Not any of us. Not ever. He was a pervert and an abomination before God.
She also mistakes Aubrey for Eric’s gay lover. But no, it’s really just–
Uncle Eric had been rich beyond any of our dreams. He’d spent his days fighting against spirits that invade the world and possess human bodies. No wonder Dad freaked out. Anything that didn’t fit into his neatly packaged worldview was evil by definition.
I’m left puzzled here: what was Abraham trying to do? It just fizzles out, because Eric wasn’t gay after all. So what’s this even about? Some weird hand-waving gesture to show that he is faintly, vaguely, remotely aware that Homophobia Is a Terrible Thing and that Zha-nay is a liberal progressive who is totally okay with the gays in contrast with the “full-on gay-hating, patriarch-in-the-house, know-your-place episode of Jerry Springer that had been my childhood”? (See what I meant about cultural touchstones of a “culture” that’s comprised entirely of pop-media references?) Or this, I guess:
I knew the next words. I could feel the syllables against my tongue. Marriage is sacred. And I could hear the voice that was saying them. It was my mother’s. It all fit together with a click that was nearly physical.
I had rejected my parents and their parochial, small, restrictive ideas. I had broken off with my family and allowed myself the kind of experiences they were always tacitly afraid I’d have—sex, beer, R-rated movies—and I’d pretended that I had remade myself. But Aubrey’s history took me by surprise, and I’d reacted like I was still sitting in the fourth pew. My liberal, broad-minded tolerance could still be scratched off with a fingernail.
Heh, funny how racism doesn’t rate a mention.
The lawyer sighed.
“Ms. Heller,” she said. “You are a very rich young woman.”
“Um,” I said. “Okay. What scale are we talking about here?”
She told me: total worth, liquid assets, property.
“Well,” I said, putting the mug down. “Holy shit.”
So, anyway, Eric leaves Zha-nay everything he owned. It’s an American Dream shortcut: a sorta-estranged relative dies and leaves you shitloads of money, elevating you from disaffected twenty-something with nothing to your name to a multi-billionaire overnight. This presumably is to keep Zha-nay from being distracted by things like “making a living” so she can focus full-time on the supernatural stuff. Again, even Anita Blake has a job, more or less.
Bad shit happens, and we come to the obligatory “Yer a wizard, Harry!” info-dump. It is tiresome. It is tiresome beyond belief, and no amount of whacky “oho here’s a mystical Buddhist” or “here’s an undead chef” will leaven the tiresomeness of it all. Somewhere in the whacky “a spirit possesses a man and drives his soul into a dog” adventures I lose all interest.
But there was also a small, secret joy way down deep that surprised me. I was rich beyond my wildest dreams. Things hadn’t gone the way I wanted with Aubrey, but they’d still left me feeling wanted in a way that was almost more reassuring than actually having a boyfriend would have been. And regardless of why Eric had gone after the Invisible College in the first place, I knew why I was doing it.
I was doing it for Eric.
No worries, gentlemen; Zha-nay is defined entirely by men and is doing what she does for a man. Daniel Abraham, Feminist Ally gold medalist. If you’re curious where he stands on queer people, there is precisely zero of those around in this book as far as I can tell. But then, it’s probably just as well.
This is a great book if you enjoy the taste of regurgitated cardboard, think racist quips are hilarious, and believe Dan Brown is a literary master. Compared to Abraham, Laurell K Hamilton is a master of exciting plot twists and witty dialogue.
EDIT: I’ve been reminded that Abraham was the one who wrote this Private Letter from Genre to Mainstream, which imagines genre as an admirer and literary fiction as an aloof, unattainable woman. Abraham probably thought it was charming; what it actually sounds like is a creepy stalker’s diary that culminates in murder and/or whining on reddit about being friendzoned.
I saw you tonight. You were walking with your cabal from the university to the little bar across the street where the professors and graduate students fraternize. You were in the dark, plain clothes that you think of as elegant. I have always thought they made you look pale. I was at the newsstand. I think that you saw me, but pretended not to. I want to say it didn’t sting.
Come to me, my love. Come to me tonight. I will meet you at midnight in the garden outside my bedroom. I will wear those bright, lurid, exciting things that are my signature. You bring those pretentions that are your best and worst aspect, and – can I hope? – the willingness to shed them.