Monday, November 24, 2014

Undertow review

    I didn't know what to expect from Undertow when I picked it up. I'd heard it was a well-regarded urban fantasy novel but knew nothing about the premise, characters, or setting. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the better ones I've read this year. It's easily up there with Damoren and some of the mid-level Dresden Files books. I think this is a series I'll follow and review as I do so.

    The premise is Ethan Banning is a private investigator who, through some fault of his own, has gotten himself possessed by a demon. This is not a suave or charming tempter but a disgusting beast which constantly encourages Ethan to torture and murder. Ethan, being a working class stiff, usually manages to tune him out the same way I do the offensive background noise of my life.

    Which ticks the demon off something fierce.

    Despite the fact he's a got a handle on keeping it from killing people randomly, Ethan still wants it out of his head. To that end, he seeks out a university professor who is an expert on the occult. The professor wants Ethan to do him a favor first, however, and that ticks the whole ball rolling for our plot. A plot which will involve ancient sea gods, lovable teenage necromancers, and virgin sacrifice.

    Ethan is a likable enough lead as we see how his condition is a curse rather than a blessing in disguise. He suffers diarrhea of the mouth and must keep a constant check on his emotions lest he Hulk-out with uncontrollable rage. The demon is one-dimensional but, occasionally, shows signs of having been something more once. I like that hint as it offers a chance for the creature to grow.

    Undertow has strong H.P. Lovecraft influences which get lampshaded later in the story. There's a small New England town with a dark secret, an ancient slumbering sea god, and a cult out to bring him back to the world of the living. It isn't directly set in the Cthulhu Mythos, primarily due to the Christian influences of Ethan's possession, but incorporates something similar with ease. I hope we'll see more use of these ancient evils as the fact they terrify Ethan's demon is excellent build-up.

    The supporting cast is excellent with a collection of oddballs and weirdos who are all entertaining to read about. I liked everyone and wanted to see more books about their interaction with Ethan. I was especially fond of his pseudo-Goth sidekick and hoped they'd become permanent partners at the end. Ethan, himself, is a cheerfully unlikable lead with a lot of hangups which get him in trouble with the locals (even without a demon egging him on).

    If I have one complaint about Undertow, it's the ending. The book is funny, entertaining, and light-hearted before suddenly swerving into territory similar to Hellblazer. The ending body-count is huge and removes a lot of characters from play I'd grown attached to. Some may find this to be a good thing but I found it to be jarring.

    Pick this up if you like the Dresden Files or Mercedes Thompson.


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