Title: Half Resurrection Blues
Author: Daniel José Older
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ || 3.0
This is the first novel of the Bone Street Rumba series and you guys, I’m in love. It has everything I like. Urban fantasy? Yes. The main character as an agent of death? I’ve been working with a similar concept. Half resurrection as a conceit for diaspora??? I am here 👏 for 👏 that 👏!
Half-Resurrection Blues follows Carlos (may or may not be his real name), a disabled Puerto Rican (may or may not be his real ethnicity) resident of the boonies (just kidding, it’s only Brooklyn). He is also dead. Well, only half-dead, but also half-alive. He works for the New York Council of Death, hunting down renegade ghosts and sundry other supernatural creatures. And he’s good at it, too, until New Year’s Eve, when he is commissioned to kill someone he’s never seen the like of before––he is commissioned to kill someone like him. And this opens up a series of events that may add up to be a cataclysm.
I’ll admit, this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read. It’s relegated to the $9/tome commercial SFF paperback section in Barnes & Noble, and I’m much more of a $17.99/300 page YA SFF hardcover kind of girl. Just the way I’ve always been. I’ve never really liked the kind of SFF that was coded as being For Nerd Boys™ because the barrier to entry was too high. I never wanted to deal with people questioning my Nerd Cred™ or calling me a Fake Fan™ (I still remember being 12 and making an offhand comment about Eowyn being quite a feminist character and having like 50 grown men dogpile me because Merry Helped Too and The Prophecy Was Talking About Race Not Gender––not a memory I like reliving). I play video games alone or with friends I know IRL because I hate the toxic environment of the gaming community. I never ever talk to boys about video games (the one time I have he assumed I played COD, which…okay).
I say all this not to paint a portrait of a girl who cloistered herself in the warm, safe, gentle (sometimes) arms of YA because it was a genre that was geared primarily to girls (I mean, that too), but to emphasise how good this book is that I braved the endless shelves of the fantasy section in the Union Square Barnes & Noble for it. Past the manga section. Where the weebs live. I even confronted my fear of being An Adult and talking to other people to ask the nice lady who worked at the information desk if she could help me find it, because it was on a high shelf and I’m 5ft 3in. I took a gamble, because so many people had said so many good things, and because the premise was just so fascinating (think neo-noir ghost hunter in Bed-Stuy). And it paid off big time.
While I love the neo-noir vibe, what turns me off from the genre (from most genres, actually) is the machismo. The Lone Man™ who holds a gun, smoking a cigar, drinking whisky and sleeping with much younger women who, let’s be honest, in the real world, would be way out of his league. This didn’t have that vibe––the language was not languishing in masculinity, which was such a pleasant surprise from a book that’s marketed as being gritty. It’s violent, right, but not in a way that makes me squint suspiciously at its own indulgence in the act of being violent.
But the novel does fall into some pretty standard traps of the genre. There is a notable lack of major female characters (as compared to the men), and of the ones who really count, Carlos’ love interest is a) the sister of the person he murdered, which is, I’m sorry, but such an issue (this isn’t a spoiler, this is established pretty quickly) b) there to be an object of affection, desire, and displaced guilt and c) there to be quirky and cool and mysterious. She becomes a vessel, in more ways than one, and it was highly disconcerting in a landscape where women are frequently made to be vessels of affection, of projection, of fantasy, without their consent.
Another thing that particularly stuck out to me––that is to say that it caught my eye, though I couldn’t say for sure if it was offensive or not––was the way the Orthodox Jewish character was presented. In the scope of things, he’s quite a nice guy, and a minor character, but I know that elements of monstrosity are often projected onto Jewish characters, and Moishe becomes a literal monster later on in the novel, and his height and strength becomes elements of his monstrosity; that is to say that his very form becomes monstrous.
Overall, this was a good read. It never felt boring, and the quick pace aided the feeling of urgency, confusion, and later, desperation. However, a few stumbles gave me second thoughts about this otherwise well-written fantasy novel which deals skillfully with race, diaspora, and identity.