Before the Dawn is a story by Thom Brannan, author of the Pavlov's Dogs series. I was interested in this work automatically since any author who comes up with the idea of Zombies vs. Werewolves automatically gets my attention. Fair warning - I also know Thom Brannan personally from the writing community so you should take that fact into account when reading my work. I'll try and be fair and impartial so that I may drink up his tears and laugh at his shattered dreams. *pause* Oh, did I say that aloud?
No, seriously, Before the Dawn is a pretty enjoyable urban fantasy monster hunter tale. The premise is monster hunter Io, who is a dude named after a Greek cow goddess, is a newly promoted agent of the Century. The Century is a group of one hundred wizards, each with a Roman numeral, who maintain the balance between the various supernatural forces in the world. They're remarkably unpretentious about this, being more interested in getting the job done than acting like The Dresden Files' White Council or even MI6.
In this case, Io is summoned down from Seattle to Austin, TX due to a number of vampire related murders which is as close to a routine case as it gets in Io's line of work. Meeting with Detective John Chang and an ex-Century agent named Simon D'Argent, he discovers that there's a lot more going on in the city than he initially suspects. There's an ancient evil power, the mysterious Eastking, and a kooky water spirit who has her own method of water-boarding prisoners.
Io is a laid back sort of protagonist who is probably too young to be in his profession. He's free from angst, aside from the mundane sort like his constant movements make dating a pain in the ass, which is a rarity in the genre. He's addicted to junk food, witty, and a relatively okay sort of fellow with few mental or social hangups. He's a bit on the vanilla side but he's not boring, either, which is a good thing.
The supporting cast is also likable and entertaining but missing in extreme personalities. John is a Chinese American Texas police officer which, surprisingly, is played as almost irrelevant to his character. Aside from a few acknowledgements he really hates jokes on the subject, he's blessedly flee from stereotype. Simon D'Agent is basically Io in a hundred years, having seen it all and managed to somehow live through the experience.
The villain is, sadly, the weakest part of the book due to being literally called the Master and just being sort of vaguely evil. He doesn't get much character development and exists, primarily, for our heroes to screw with his plans. I would have liked a bit more motivation and insight into what sort of creature it is as well as his intentions to the world. I was much more interested in the Eastking's agenda and, ironically, the Troll at the start of the book who just wanted to breed a new clutch of (horribly dangerous) babies.
The best part of the book is, undoubtedly, the interrogation scene where Io is subjected to a variety of tortures both magical and mundane. This is when he feels genuinely in peril for the first time in the book as well as helpless before his captors. The insights we get back to his tortured childhood also give us some cracks in our lead's carefree armor. I would have liked to have seen more of those.
Before the Dawn is a lighter and softer world than, say, Jim Butcher's work with the system of checks on the supernatural being implied to largely work. I'm not sure how the supernatural is supposed to be kept secret when every major city has a department liaison devoted to the spooky as well as the Century only having a hundred agents but it's not a complete suspension-of-disbelief breaker either.
The book reads as less a single narrative and more like a series of miniature adventures which happen to tie together. Thom Brannan enjoys hanging around with his characters as they discuss pop culture, shoot-the-breeze, and explain what sort of creepie-crawlie they're dealing with this time. I did too, though I couldn't help but think I might have enjoyed the book more if it took more risks.
In conclusion, Before the Dawn is like the Jack and the Box for which Io has sold his soul to indulge on daily. If you are hungry for urban fantasy, it is a tasty and delicious treat which is only bad for you if you eat nothing but it. This is the perfect "quick-read" for a person who just wants to enjoy some wise-cracking, likable heroes fighting nasty bad things. Io is a bit too normal to really reach big dramatic heights but I wouldn't mind picking up the next novel either.
Which is better than most books I read by far.