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Nightwise
by R S Belcher
Tor, $25.99, 320pp
Published: August 2015

The first couple of chapters of 'Nightwise' do a wonderful job of pouring us into a fictional world. I found it even more engaging because the lead character, Laytham Ballard, is rather close to the dream persona of a friend of mine, who recently started up his own religion, and I couldn't help but read on with him in mind.

Attempting to describe Ballard is somewhat difficult and I would expect that different readers would do so differently. My take was that he's a wanderer through subcultures; because he's a man who lives in the shadows but feels comfortable there. In fact he feels comfortable within all the various different underworld scenes known here as 'the Life.' We meet hackers and fetish models, transsexual aborigines and drug dealers, psychic vampires and torturers. Ballard knows each of their scenes and the etiquette used within them.

Some would describe him as a magician, because he certainly has magical ability, but that word nowadays tends to suggest either a stage trickster or a character in a long robe covered in stars, neither of which remotely does Ballard justice.

His grandma would call him a Wisdom, because that's what she called herself and she trained him. She's backwoods magic, the wise woman to whom the locals went for healing and, sometimes, perhaps something more. He inherited her natural talents to enhanced levels. During a lesson about death, in which he witnesses a snake kill a squirrel, he resurrects it from the dead - at the age of five. He learns that everything has a price and that some prices extract a bigger debt than others. When we first meet him, there has already been a great deal of extraction done during his past and he bears the scars.

Others would call him a loyal friend, because the entire plot is triggered by a promise he makes to a dying buddy. That friend is Boj, who is succumbing to the ravages of AIDS and wants to see one man dead before him. That man is Dusan Slorzack, who killed Boj's wife, Mita, in Bosnia back in 1992, when he was hanging around with war criminals, before mysteriously and suspiciously vanishing from existence. Boj wants Ballard to track down and kill Slorzack. Ballard accepts because Boj saved his life more than once and he feels that he owes him.

Of course, Ballard would call himself a legend, which isn't an exaggeration. He's done things that most can only dream of and those in the Life still talk about. Given that all those things were done before this novel began and there aren't half a dozen prior books because this isn't a series, we can be sure that it can only get more legendary from here. Sure enough, he takes on more metaphysical debt to accomplish his goals and how he does that is pretty frickin' legendary. While some readers would have trouble in trying to empathise with someone this dark, others will clearly dream about doing what he does.

We learn about Ballard's background and witness his promise to Boj early in the book. The very first line sets the stage well.  'The banker was crucified on the wall of his Wall Street office, fountain pens rammed through both wrists, an Armani Jesus’. The rest of that chapter, in which Ballard investigates the scene, ends with him bringing a hidden tattoo to visibility on the dead man's chest, so exposing that he was one of the Illuminati.

Now the pace of the story kicks into motion and it never slows down. Ballard is a predator, searching for a man to kill, but he's also prey, running from invisible Japanese demons and a whole slew of very powerful people. And that's a pretty cool dynamic in which to frame a novel. It highlights that while this is urban fantasy, it's not some wussy vampire romance; this is dark, foreboding stuff that carries a texture to its darkness.

Personally, I had a blast with it. The relentless pace and the dark tone are right up my alley and I enjoyed every one of the various subcultures Ballard breezes through, throwing people up in his wake to be breezed through in turn by those in pursuit.

I haven't read his first two novels, 'The Six-Gun Tarot' and 'The Shotgun Arcana,' though both are now firmly on my wishlist; but I have looked at their synopses and realise that Belcher clearly feels drawn to the forbidden. Why something might be forbidden doesn't matter to him that much, just the fact that he shouldn't have anything to do with it is enough to pique his interest.

And, given that I have much the same tendency, part of why I'm happy to be a founding member of the Arizona Penny Dreadfuls, I'm all for him writing another dozen novels about all the other things that decent people don't talk about, spun by imagination into very dark journeys into the taboo. Belcher is rather like James P. Blaylock, if James P. Blaylock had grown up in the Addams Family.

One thing that reminds me of Blaylock is how Belcher combines the real with the imaginary, an approach that got a big boost from the steampunk scene. Rather than throw historical characters in as the leads, like alternate history, they're thrown in as odd background to spark conspiracy theory. References to Radovan Karadžić and Timothy Leary, not to mention the founding fathers and the US Mint, ground this wild fantasy in historical truth and make us wonder, just a little, if Belcher on to something. Yet, he doesn't make these things the point of his story, just an evocative background to paint his words against.

'Nightwise' reminded me in some ways of 'The Owl' books by Bob Forward. Everything here is dark in tone, like a neo-noir, but hip and modern, as if the world was a film noir but progressed technologically and culturally forward. I see this sort of world more in dystopian science fiction cyberpunk takes on Phillip Marlowe. 'Nightwise' is very much urban fantasy thoughout, feeling like Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere' if it was endowed with the tone of David Fincher's 'Seven.' The world is normal, but the Life is something else entirely; happening behind and below and around, but never where most of us are looking.

I wonder how big an audience Belcher will find with this book and his earlier ones. I can see him becoming a cult name, beloved by many but too dark for the masses to accept. Like the Life, they may be happier in the belief that he and his work don't exist. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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