The Clandestine Daze series by Tim Marquitz is a set of gritty urban fantasy espionage stories depicting a doppleganger named Z who has temporarily adopted the persona of a Texas security consultant in order to spy on his employers. The opening scene of the novella, Eyes Deep (reviewed here), was him killing the innocent man and eating one of his eyeballs to assume his form.
Needless to say, this is not your typical hero.
I was intrigued by Eyes Deep's premise, so much so that I decided to check out the full-blown novel which followed up on its events. While not opening with anything as shocking as the original novella, we get to see just just how dangerous Z even faced with his fellow monsters. The fights are visceral and uncompromising with Clandestine Daze possibly the first grimdark urban fantasy series I've read (not counting Hellblazer).
The rest of the novel is a collection of numerous spy vs. spy shenanigans as Z struggles to maintain his identity as an agent for the mysterious A.I. organization while being tempted by the prospects of a normal life (which he stole). One of the more intriguing elements is the fact Z is an unquestionably "bad" man who is doing very bad things in the service of a dubious cause. He possesses a remnant of humanity, however, despite never being human in the first place. Z wishes very much to do the right thing but, unlike so many other antiheroes, is willing to do genuine evil to serve the cause he thinks of as the greater good.
Even if we, the audience, may disagree.
The series' premise is Z's employers represent the faction of the Aellisars (fairies, basically), who don't want war with humanity. It falls to Z to make sure their political opponents are thwarted and the tenuous peace between humanity and the Aellisar is preserved. Likewise, Z must make sure humanity doesn't gain the technology to identify the Aellisar amongst them. You know, despite the fact they include vampires and other predatory monsters.
This moral ambiguity is both the series' strength and biggest flaw. Its hard to root for a protagonist who is actively working to suppress humanity's ability to fight back against monsters and is fooling an innocent family into believing he's the person he murdered. In TVtropes.org terms, Z has crossed the Moral Event Horizon and believes his actions are irredeemable. He attempts to do small things to make up for these actions but the genius of the novel is both Z as well as the reader know this is too-little-too late.
For example: Z refuses to sleep with the wife of the man he's murdered and is impersonating, which doesn't help that the man is still exist. The rule he's established for himself keeps him from becoming a rapist but doesn't do anything to redeem the other terrible things he does for a dubious goal. Z is deeply indebted to his employers both emotionally as well as politically, facts which get expounded on in this novel, which means that eventually more orders to do the unforgivable are going come down to the pipeline.
Something Z dreads as he doesn't have much left to sacrifice.
Given the protagonist is almost completely unsympathetic, you'd think this would be a deal-breaker but I like the web of rationalizations and self-justifications Z keeps trying to feed himself. I also think the author is building up for a big moment where they all come tumbling down. The moment where he decides to abandon his Z persona entirely and become Theodor's wife's husband, with all the horror that implies, because it is a better existence than his current one or when she discovers what monster she's been sleeping beside. I really wish we'd seen that this time around. I wanted things to come to ahead in Influx and, sadly, it's still set up for that moment coming next book.
I'm terrible at patience.
Another area I think the novel could do better in is to quit teasing the reader with the sex. The genre is squarely fantastic Noir where everyone is one manner of a scumbag or another but the characters remain ever surprisingly prudish. Z can't sleep with his beautiful femme fatale partner Jace any more than he can sleep with his wife, despite numerous moments where I think it would have made the story more intense. Indeed, he keeps himself remarkably monkish and focuses entirely on the mission which serves to make him less human. If a monster he must be, at least be a monster who has fun.
Anywho, despite this, the novel is full of outstanding writing moments. Tim Marquitz weaves a complex and entertaining yarn with various factions, double-crosses, triple crosses, and red herrings. Despite the fact it's a book about modernized fairy kingdoms versus the American government, the spywork feels authentic. There's also a lot of black humor I loved like Jace sexually teasing poor Z when he's forced to assume a female form.
The action is a big part of the books appeal as Tim Marquitz is one of my favorite writers of low-level fight scenes. Z may end up fighting vampires, elves, werewolves, coyote-people, Nunnehi, and more but Tim always manages to keep the scenes grounded. For a man who doesn't possess anything resembling superpowers, Z is very-very good at killing. This, unlike his murder of his current identity, doesn't fill Z with any guilt and is almost a release for him.
In conclusion, I recommend this book but not as a starter to the series. I strongly encourage newcomers to pick up the original Eyes Deep and read it in conjunction with Influx. The two books really should be released as one edition given they flow from one to another. Despite this, for black on black morality urban fantasy spy work, you could do a lot worse.