Dark Currents – Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents:  Agent of Heldarkcurrents-med
Jaqueline Carey
A ROC Book
First Edition:  October 2, 2012
ISBN 978-0-451-46478-1

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If you’ve read much of what I’ve had to say here at LitStack then you probably know that I am a huge fan of Jacqueline Carey.  Her Kushiel Legacy series – especially the Phèdre and the Imriel trilogies – are, in my mind and for my tastes, sublime.  I also consider her the goddess of erotic fiction.  However, what first and foremost makes her a fantastic author is that she knows how to tell a story.  And in her latest novel, Dark Currents: Agent of Hel, the story takes center stage.  With no sex.  And that’s ok… because the story doesn’t need sex.  (Maybe in the 2nd or 3rd installment – because “Agent of Hel” is to be series -but not in this one.)

Ms. Carey is also a master worldbuilder.  Her land of Terre d’Ange in the Kushiel series is steeped in history and filled with a mythos and theology to match its topography and peoples.  In her Sundering duology, the ethos and landscapes echo Tolkien and Moorcock.  Her occupied Texas in Santa Olivia is achingly familiar and yet so bizarrely foreign.  So what exotic location or fantastical land is Dark Currents set in?

Pemkowet, Michigan.  Yup, a generally quiet resort town next to a meandering river, with a nearby private college and a summer tourist season that triples the population.  A place with music in the park on a Saturday night set up in the white wicker gazebo strung with clear Christmas lights, and a hand-cranked ferry banked on the river under a sweeping willow tree, surrounded by ducks idly gobbling up popcorn thrown to them by wandering tourists.  A typical, wholesome, Midwestern village.  Oh, but there’s something else about Pemkowet worth mentioning, that sets it apart from other idyllic summer get-aways.  This small town has a functioning underworld (literally – access to the underworld is through the roots of a gigantic tree) and a thriving eldritch community (eldritch = supernatural).  Yup, worldbuilding, even in the world we know.

In fact, the eldritch community is part of the tourist draw to Pemkowet.  Come to the quaint Midwestern town and possibly catch sight of a fairy (most people don’t realize the little critters have very sharp teeth) or even rub shoulders with a vampire or a ghoul (if you’re very lucky).  There are also brownies (most people don’t know that the local bakery is run by one) and naiads (although it would be better not to meet up with one of those) and a family of werewolves in the vicinity (although this is not well known – werewolves are fiercely protective of their privacy).

Then there’s Daisy, the heroine of Dark Currents.  Daisy is a 20-something, cute, blond part-time file clerk at the local police station.  Oh, and she has a tail.  That’s because Daisy is hell-spawn; well, technically a half-breed, as her father is a lesser demon and occasional incubus – although he does reside in hell.  From her mother she gets her cheekbones, her fair skin and her white-blonde hair.  From her father she gets her tail, her dark-as-ink eyes and her quick temper.  Her tail she can usually cover up in a pair of jeans or under a summer dress.  Her temper is not always that easy to conceal.

Daisy is also Hel’s agent.  Not hell, as in the place where her father lives, but Hel as the Norse goddess of the dead.  Every functioning underworld needs a supreme authority, and Pemkowet is Hel’s territory; her word is law.  And Daisy has been recruited to be Hel’s liaison with the eldritch community above; the rune etched into her palm is her badge of authority, invisible to the “mundane” but readily evident to anyone with supernatural blood.

It’s kind of a no-brainer, then, when one of the frat boys from the local college turns up dead and a subtle supernatural talisman indicates that something in the eldritch community is involved, that Daisy is recruited to help with the official investigation.  Factor in her being partnered with a hunky, wolfish young police officer (and the guy that Daisy has had a secret crush on since elementary school), a new ghoul-in-charge who is striving to assert his authority over the Hell’s Angel-ish outcast community and a growing anti-eldritch fundamentalist movement in the mundane community that threatens not only the reputation but the livelihood of Pemkowet, and you’ve got a unique crime story unfolding.

Although this may not sound like “typical” fare from Jacqueline Carey, her ability to tell a complex story in a very simple and compelling way is very much in evidence in Dark Currents.  No matter how fantastic the cast of characters is, no matter what mystical component is folded into the story, it flows effortlessly and authentically.  Under Ms. Carey’s deft pen, the story also moves quickly, as one would expect from a more “modern” tale, yet does not feel hurried just for the sake of modernity; she takes ample time to set an atmosphere or evoke a mood, but does not dwell on it.  The prose is fresh and active but still has a nod to a close knit, small town community (on several levels) moving at its own summer pace.

The characters are fresh, too.  Daisy may be Hel’s liaison, but she’s no superwoman.  She’s witty, and youthfully sarcastic and occasionally inconsiderate.  She’s conflicted about her feelings for her co-worker, she missteps with her best friend and is confused on how to affect a resolution, she gets tired and cranky and sometimes is pretty darned klutzy.  When she is given an ancient weapon, she doesn’t automatically know how to wield it as many heroines in fantasy fiction seem able to do.  She is aware that giving in to the temptation that her father offers would bring about fire and brimstone, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t sometimes wish she could make all her troubles go away by embracing her birthright.  She does evidence an immaturity at times, but that just makes her more… human.  Even with a tail.

Other characters don’t fare quite so well.  Officer Cody Fairbanks, the hunky, young police officer who is the object of Daisy’s youthful adoration, is a bit too perfect in body and temperament (and downright wholesomeness, even for a werewolf).  The petty factions of the town – not just the anti-eldritch movement but the PR driven Pemkowet Visitors Bureau – are one dimensional vehicles used to drive the story in a specific direction.  But that’s ok.  Those uncomplicated factors keep the deeper, richer story moving, filling in gaps and supporting other actions taken.

While not epic and sweeping as other Jacqueline Carey works, Dark Currents – Agent of Hel is a supernatural crime thriller that unexpectedly is like a breath of fresh, summer air.  Layered and complex, but still with a cheeky humor to it that balances the darkness that lurks in the pages, this story not only tells a fast moving tale dealing with strange beings and singular set of circumstances, but it also sets the stage for some pretty interesting developments for the volumes to come.  And you can bet I’ll be eagerly anticipating each and every one of those volumes – tail and all.

 

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