The urban fantasy genre isn't just set in cities — it's one of the main places that genre fiction engages with our urbanized existence, picking up the baton dropped by cyberpunk. But you don't often see cities depicted the way Daniel José Older does in his new novel Half-Resurrection Blues.
Image via Daniel José Older
Some spoilers ahead...
Older, co-editor of the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, has an interest in people who get left out of the usual fantasy tales — and that shows through in this book, mostly set in a fantasy version of Brooklyn and its surroundings. But in addition to including a lot of characters of color and magical traditions that don't usually turn up in fantasy, this book also has a richness in how it depicts cities as living places with deep roots, where ancient ghosts (literally and figuratively) have long since taken up residence.
In Half-Resurrection Blues, there's an organization called the Council of the Dead, made up of, basically, ghost cops who keep the dead from overwhelming the world of the living. But the novel's main character, Carlos Delacruz, isn't exactly a ghost — he's half dead, half alive, still in his physical body but kind of zombified. Carlos believes he's the only "halfie" alive, until he meets (and kills) Trevor, another halfie who's leading a group of hipster tourists through an opening into the land of the dead.
Soon, Carlos is falling for Trevor's sister Sasha (also a halfie), and uncovering a plot to break down the barrier between life and death. He has to stop an invasion of ghosts and foil the scheme of an ancient immortal sorcerer, all while dealing with the stupid bureaucracy and micromanaging from his bosses at the Council. And he has to figure out how to tell Sasha he killed her brother.
Carlos is an engaging protagonist, with more or less the right mixture of snarky humor and inner pain. But a lot of the juice in this book comes from the pretty large supporting cast and all of the world-building that Older works in, which depicts the city as an ecosystem where various magical entities play their own part. We meet a nearly endless collection of ghosts and magical healers, and the city slowly builds up as a believable place, full of odd corners and strange institutions.
Most urban fantasy books spend their time poking into grungy corners of their cities — you'll see L.A. and San Francisco a whole new way after spending time with Sandman Slim or October Daye — but what's great about Older's version of New York is how warm and strange it is, and how intertwined the warmth and strangeness are. This is a Brooklyn that resists gentrification and sanitization.
And the deeper you get into Half-Resurrection Blues, the more significant Carlos' status as someone halfway alive and halfway dead comes to seem. At first, it's just sort of an oddity, but it really begins to take over the book, thematically, about halfway through. Probably the best scene in the whole book is a random conversation between Carlos and a Native American gay man who sometimes passes as white and straight, and they talk about the benefits and costs of moving between two worlds and appearing to be something you're not.
That's when the book really clicked for me, and the fun city stuff started to feel more connected to Carlos' existence. (If I have a complaint about this book, it's that the first half feels a bit too meandering, and the breezy tone doesn't lend quite enough danger or intensity to the action. The book fully hits its stride in the second half.) As Carlos starts to learn more about his own origins and discovers the truth about others like himself, he discovers the real meaning of being caught between two worlds — and maybe, why he'll always have divided loyalties.
And that's really what's terrific about the version of the city that Daniel Jose Older conjures here — it's not just a richly detailed and diverse place, but a place where worlds collide, and people who are caught in the middle can meet up and have a beer, and discover how to make the best of not quite fitting in.