From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Evil Ways by Justin Gustainis

Evil Ways belongs to what I think of as the new generation of urban fantasy. Magic isn’t creeping into the real world to astonish and enchant the lucky few, it’s already here, walking around in broad daylight for anyone to see. This particular example of the genre is not of the best, but in some ways it seems unfair to review it harshly. Evil Ways is what it is: bathtub reading, dentist-waiting-room reading, fast and easy and with plenty of diversion if all you want is to be diverted from that impending root canal or that crappy day at work. It’s got lots of action and lots of dialogue and a certain amount of humor, so it’s a snappy read, and it will not burden a weary mind with challenges. It’s action-packed fluff, and I, for one, have often been glad to use that kind of fiction as a pillow for the aching brain.

However. Even taking the book on its own terms, I have some issues here. First are all the niggling details — the wrong details — that give the book an amateurish feel. Take the house alarm wired to the outside of the door that is not set off by snipping the wire. Dude, even I have heard of contact plates and circuit interruption. Or take the character, not a comparative anatomist, who sees a bunch of hearts in glass jars and instantly recognizes them as belonging to human children. I’m not sure I could identify a mammal heart without (or even with) careful inspection, and as for telling the difference between a child’s and a pig’s or a baboon’s… Even for an expert it takes dissection and a textbook or two. Yes, this is a reviewer being nit-pickety, but I am irritated by these things because I can’t help but think, fairly or not: if the author can’t get these tiny details right, or doesn’t care if he gets them wrong, what else is he going to let slide? Characterization? Plot?

In a sense, I have no great complaints in that regard. Niggling details aside, the basic plot works, possibly because it’s been well-tested in previous outings. The bad guys are trying to raise the devil — the devil, Satan himself — and the good guys are trying to stop them. (Though without petitioning for reinforcements from the angelic hosts, which is an odd disparity I’ve noticed in other stories of this kind. Any number of devils and demons, but nary an angel to be seen.) Suspense is raised by letting the reader see all kinds of things the good guys can’t, but since the good guys learn what they need to know in a timely (and in one instance, profoundly implausible) fashion, they don’t go haring off in the wrong direction or make disastrously wrong decisions, so for me, at least, the suspense never got too painfully intense. And though the characterization is basic, it, like the dialogue, is competent and even quite fun at times. And hey, it’s a plot-driven story, so what more could you ask for? Well…
For one thing, why are those nasty bad guys trying to raise the devil? Apparently because they’re nasty and bad. Evil is a big word, and the bad guys are going around with it stapled to their foreheads, as in this scene wherein the Really Bad Guy gloats in approved bad guy fashion to our captured heroine:

“I am the wizard who is going to usher in a whole new

era for this world of ours, in a few days’ time. I really should behave

in a way consistent with what will soon be my elevated station. And

you have no idea, Libby dear, just how far I am going to be elevated,

once the new order takes power. Many will die, it’s true, and many

more will suffer. But a select few, such as my humble self, will be richly

rewarded.”

Libby stared at him impassively, but she was thinking, Sweet Goddess,

he’s crazy as a bedbug. I don’t know what this big plan is that

he’s blathering about, but even if he fails, he can cause a great deal of

harm in the process.

It would be nice to think the author was exercising irony here, wouldn’t it? Alas, I fear it is not so. But do you know what really had me pulling my hair? It’s this question that goes unaddressed in too much fantastical fiction. Simply put: What is magic, and what is it for? Evil Ways, and it’s not unique in the new urban fantasy for this, is full of things like “witch sense” and “mid-level spells.” Earlier in the above scene, the Really Bad Guy threatens to use his “superior power to bounce [his captive] off the wall.” Am I the only reader, at least of my generation, who is going to hear the Dungeon Master rolling the dice in the background and intoning, “You have gained a mid-level spell. Will you use it to bounce your opponent against the wall?” Because that is the kind of magic we’re talking about here. D&D magic. Video game magic. You may now proceed to the next level! Hurray!

What we aren’t getting, and what I miss bitterly, is any sense whatsoever of the mystery, the strangeness, the danger, the thrill, the poetry, the … well … the magic in the magic. It’s all recipes and astral-projection conference calls, and we don’t even really get to experience what those feel like or how they work. I found myself longing for Sean Stewart’s touch of the numinous, Tim Powers’ twisted logic, James Blaylock’s giddy weirdness. Evil Ways may be an easy, lively read, it may even appeal to readers attempting their first transition from X-Box to fiction, but I’m afraid it will be an exercise in frustration to anyone who has read deeply in the genre.

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