Set in an alternative contemporary London where Tribers (Demons, Witches and Vampires) have been an accepted part of society for centuries, “Dire Stra..Show More »its” tells the story of Bo Blackman, a bottom-rung-of-the-ladder investigator at the Dire Straits detective agency, who is set up for a murder charge when she attempts to serve a summons on a demon.
“Dire Straits” is excellent Urban Fantasy by any standard: it gives a new and convincing take on Vampires, Witches and Demons; it has a complicated, well thought through plot that kept me hungry to know what would happen next while feeding me action, tension, and emotional upheaval along the way and the main character is engaging as much for her flaws as for her strengths.
My enjoyment of all these attributes was greatly increased by the fact that the book is set in London, which means that, as a Brit, I can clearly see where fantasy has been skillfully grafted on to reality. Most of the Urban Fantasy I read is set in the US. I’ve traveled and worked there enough to be able to recognize Butcher’s Chicago or Andrew’s Atlanta but I know that there are many cultural nuances that I miss. With “Dire Straits”, it’s as if I’m moved to the 3D, HD, Surround Sound version of Urban Fantasy. These are people I recognise, even if they are Vampires or Demons.
“Dire Straits” has a very English tone, with different attitudes to conflict (at least in public), strong links to class-based elites, a very different, non-gun-carrying kind of police force, and neat twists that apply British attitudes to race and immigration to Tribers, even quoting Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. London provides an atmospheric backdrop for the action, including mansions that Vampires have owned for centuries and a very dramatic scene set inside Big Ben. British humour and wordplay makes the dialogue richer and British swearing takes it well outside the US romance writers’ guidelines. Still, Josh Whedon was able to slip words like “Bugger” and “Sod off” into “Buffy” scripts because the American censors didn’t understand them. I wonder what they’d make of the recurring use of “Smegging Hell” here? They’d probably object to the “Hell” part.
The Vampires and Witches in the book are very English. The Vampires put on a front of being upper class Eton and Oxford types who would regard it as bad form to lose control in public. Quite different from the almost-Mafia image Vampires are often given. The Witches come across as eccentric Glastonbury Festival meets Alternative Intellectual types.
Part of the plot is set in what, in American Urban Fantasy, might be a Vampire Academy, except that the main character is desperate NOT to become a Vampire, the Vampire tutors inflict death-by-PowerPoint in nightly training sessions and the “students” range from upper class privileged types through to total Chavs.
In England, names mean a lot. When J.K. Rowling names a character Dolores Umbridge we all know what to expect: someone who spreads sadness and takes offense easily. Helen Harper chooses her names with care but one of them made me stumble. A lawyer in the story is called Harry D’Agneau (pardon me if the spelling is wrong – I listened to the audiobook). I think the name is meant to make him exotic, posh but something of an outsider, perhaps like Michael Portillo. The problem is that the name translates literally to Harry of Lamb. I kept thinking of him as Larry the Lamb. Not at all the image that was intended.
I was disappointed in Tantor Press’ choice of narrator. This book cried out for an English narrator like Emma Fielding or Finty Williams, who could have extracted every ounce of class difference from the various accents. Tantor chose Saskia Maarleveld, who comes from New Zealand. She is a very good narrator but she can’t sustain the English accents over the whole book. I looked up the narrator because I couldn’t figure out why Bo Blackman’s accent ranges from “I went to a very good public school” through to “I’ve recently returned from a few years in Australia”. Saskia Maarleveld also lacks the range to differentiate the voices of the many male characters, a curious number of whom seem to be Irish or Welsh, although the text gives no indication of this. I still enjoyed listening to Saskia Maarleveld but I felt that I was missing out on the performance that could have been there.
I devoured “Dire Straits” in a couple of days. It works as a stand-alone novel with a satisfying ending. The good news is that it’s the first in a series with a set of long story arcs. So far this month I’ve read two more: “New Order” and “High Stakes” and each was better than the last. I’m now waiting for the fourth book, “Red Angel” to be released as an audiobook.
“New Order”, the second book of the Bo Blackman series, is as fresh and as much fun to read as “Dire Straits” was.
Bo hates being a vampire. ..Show More »The idea of drinking blood revolts her. The fact that she was turned against her will makes her angry. The fact that there was a good reason for turning her just makes her angrier still. Despite being told, many times by many people, that there is no cure for vampirism, she sets off to find one and gets into a great deal of trouble during her search.
I love Bo’s anger, her impulsiveness and her (sometimes stupid) refusal to ask for help or take advice. Most of all, I like her refusal to accept that there is no way out of her situation. True, all of these things make her life more difficult than it needs to be, but they also make her more human. Bo’s humanity, or rather her refusal to abandon her humanity, is the driving force of this book. She may be a vampire but she’s determined to still be herself. Except, some parts of being a vampire (running across the rooftops of tall buildings, having super strength, healing really quickly) are really cool, and, much as she want to break free from the Monserrat vampire family that turned her, the leader of the family attracts her in ways she finds hard to ignore.
Helen Harper, describes her alternative London with deft, confident strokes. She clearly has a larger story arc in mind. Her world building deepens, telling us more about witches, demons and magic, as well as seeing how the vampire families work.
Although Bo is always dashing from place to place, often throwing herself in harms way, the story is not chaotic. The pace is carefully controlled and perfectly timed.
By the end of this book, I found that I now had an ensemble cast that I’m interested in, a volatile main character with bags of potential to entertain and surprise and a well written new world that I’m going to enjoy visiting as often as Helen Harper invites me to.