I was acutely surprised, after finishing this book, that Dan Wells has written three previous novels about John Wayne Cleaver; because this felt utterly like a standalone book. Not once did I feel that there was earlier information to which I was not privy. I'm now eager to read those three to see what young Mr. Cleaver got up to before he got up to more things here.
Cleaver is a fascinating lead character. He's a seventeen-year-old sociopath, which ought to be enough to make him interesting, but he also works on a criminal investigation team for the FBI. The comparisons that immediately leap out are all TV-based, so imagine Dexter working on the team in 'Criminal Minds,' but with the added pressure of being an underage kid surrounded by grown adults. Oh yeah, that conjures up possibilities, doesn't it?
The reason a seventeen-year-old is working for the FBI, because under other circumstances that would be a problem, is that he's an accomplished killer of Withered and his skills are invaluable in tracking down more. His friend, Brooke Watson is locked up in the Whiteflower Assisted Living Center because her body contains not only her persona but that of a Withered called Nobody, who generally doesn't get stuck. Nobody takes on the memories of the people she takes, so Brooke finds herself jam-packed full of thousands of years of the things to wander through, trawling for information. When she identifies a target, Cleaver gets close, observes, figures out the best way to kill it, and then the team goes in to take care of business.
The Withered are interesting creatures and, now I know there are prior volumes, I'd guess that they're even more interesting here than in those earlier books that I haven't read. That's because they're never black and white monsters. In fact, nobody here is black and white, which benefits this novel to no small degree.
At the beginning of the book, our FBI team of supernatural ass-kickers believe the Withered to be some breed of ancient evil demons, each with their own mysterious powers, who need to be taken down with extreme aggression. Before long, however, they find that a number of rules have changed and their methodology needs to change, too. What's more, we may believe our team to be heroes, fighting the US government's good fight against the supernatural, but we're going to be in for something of a shake-up on that front too. Wells certainly keeps us on our toes as much as he does Agent Ostler and her team of misfits.
For a while, this unfolds rather like a cross between 'Criminal Minds' and 'Supernatural,' mixing police procedural with urban fantasy. Our secret federal agency identifies a target, waits for Cleaver to deem the time right, then goes in and chops off his head to free the fifteen-year-old girl he has chained to a bedpost. This is just the calm before the storm, though, because Brooke suddenly identifies one of the regular visitors to her Assisted Living Center as another of the Withered and two more appear to be hanging around town, too. Perhaps the prey isn't content with being prey anymore and the game has changed.
The best thing about this book is the lead character. John Wayne Cleaver is a peach of a character who is quickly explained as having feelings but not an ounce of empathy. He knows full well what he is and he's done a lot of work to ease his proclivities. Whenever he feels the need, he counts the Fibonacci sequence to distract himself. I clearly shouldn't but I adore the delicious way he narrates this story; introducing his teammates while he explains his plans to kill each of them. He may be a sociopath but he's engaging to us.
The worst thing about this book is, fortunately, unrelated to the writing of Dan Wells; there's an additional left indent on the first page of each chapter that serves no purpose and frankly kept making me think the paper had slipped on the printing press and I had a defective copy. Why would someone think this was a good idea? It's enough to make me need to count to calm down. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen...
For things that Wells has power over, I'm wondering about those other three John Wayne Cleaver novels. I can see that one might be the origin story, with him making his first kills and Brooke being taken by Nobody; but otherwise, this feels so self-contained that I can't imagine what the other ones could cover. The catch to that is that this is very much Cleaver's story and however interesting Wells tries to make his colleagues, they inevitably pale in comparison. I also can't really talk about any of them because of where the story takes them. Suffice it to say that there's a very powerful scene to help us learn about who they are. What's more, how this book plays out will surely flavour my expectations for the others.
Now, beyond wanting to pick those up to see, this screams out to be adapted to the screen, though probably more as a TV show than as a feature film. I'm only a season into 'Dexter' so I don't yet know how it progresses, but this feels different enough that it could stand on its own two feet; and with that show off the air, it's high time we had another sociopath to root for. This one is on the hunt for supernatural creatures too, so it's even easier to support him in his work.
With the story easily adaptable (so much so that cynics might assume it as an endgoal for Wells throughout,) what the book has over any such screen-take is the narration. Some of it would clearly be written as narration for whoever gets lucky enough to land the role of John Wayne Cleaver (what a wonderful name that is,) but there's just so much of it here to savour that it would be automatically lessened by any adaptation. Even taking the 'Game of Thrones' approach and turning each book into a ten episode season wouldn't allow enough time to fully explore how delicious Cleaver is as a narrator. Given that Wells has written other books outside this universe, I'm perhaps even more eager to find out what voice he gave to those.
For the record, the John Wayne Cleaver series comprises 'I am Not a Serial Killer,' Wells's debut; 'Mr Monster,' 'I Don't Want to Kill You,' and the novella, 'Next of Kin.' As soon as I realised that they existed, they immediately joined my wants list. ~~ Hal C F Astell