Wow. What a difference a bit of experience makes.
I read R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six Gun Tarot, shortly after it came out, and was very impressed with this supernatural Western thriller/morality tale, and especially with Mr. Belcher’s skill in developing his characters and landscapes. But the story felt somewhat disjointed to me, like the author was trying to do too much. In my review, I said, “it almost felt like the story was falling prey to some kind of literary multiple personality disorder.”
Skip forward to his third book, the dark urban fantasy Nightwise, and not only was I treated to a taunt, focused storyline, but also to a main character that was, if anything, better than Jim or Mutt or Sheriff Highfather of his first books. I was very taken with Laytham Ballard, the anti-hero of Nightwise, even though he really isn’t that good of a person (something he readily admits).
In the ‘seedy underbelly of today’s occult underworld” – an understatement – Laytham Ballard is a rockstar. He is a modern tantric necromancer wizard with West Virginian cracker roots, who first raised the dead at age ten. He’s inordinately proud of himself, has a powerful thirst to know everything there is to know about the occult, and thinks of himself as a badass – which he is (one assailant calls him “James Bond, Gandalf, and Jim Morrison all rolled up into one”), and he has no compunction about killing innocent people if it furthers his goals or takes him out of harm’s way. He used to belong to the Nightwise, an “honorable association of knight-magicians, who dedicate themselves to police those in the Life from excesses and protect this world from unnatural threats”, but he was kicked out… fairly quickly. (“Wankers, the lot of ‘em,” he chides.) He’s also constantly on the run, having pissed off, alienated or betrayed virtually everyone around him – and those are his friends. His enemies are much, much worse.
But Laytham does have a personal code of honor, and if he owes you, he keeps his word. So when Boj, his former (now estranged) partner, asks Laytham to find the man who was behind the cold blooded killing of his wife before the AIDs consuming him takes his life, Laytham feels like he has to settle the score.
Boj. He took a 9mm rune-carved heart seeker for me in Vegas, back in ’99, when we burned Joey Dross and stole his philosopher’s stone. Boj was the only one who came back for me when everything went to shit in ’01, with us trying to save that little girl from the breeding pools under Carrabelle, Florida. He risked his life to pull me out of there when the Mosquito Queen was draining me dry and I was begging for her to do it. He stayed with me during the sickness, madness, and addiction that followed.
Problem is, the man responsible for Mita’s horrible death, Dusan Slorzack, is not just some garden variety criminal. His past includes Serbian war crimes, blood sacrifices, possible entanglement with the 9/11 conspiracy, numerous other atrocities, and links with the Illuminati, demons of all kinds and perhaps even deeper, but all leads as to his current whereabouts are dead ends. Literally. And usually gruesome ones, at that. But once Laytham is committed to a job, nothing will shake him off, not even if it imperils his very soul. In fact, imperilment of his very soul seems to be something he courts. Death wish? No. But no fear of walking on the edge of the knife, either.
But maybe if Laytham knew how deeply that knife was going to cut, he would have had second thoughts about promising Boj his revenge…
What makes Nightwise work – one of the things that makes Nightwise work – is author R. S. Belcher’s confidence in his story and in his readers. He doesn’t worry about explaining every nuance of his tale, but instead offers up hints that are often more effective than heavy explication. For example, in the paragraph quoted above, we are never given more than a mention of any of the intriguing exploits that are part of Laytham and Boj’s past. Yet because the narrative relates them in passing as actual experiences rather than hearsay, we readily accept them without question. So while we learn a lot about Laytham Ballard in this book, we are also made aware that we are only seeing a fraction of what this man has experienced, and have as yet only gotten a glimpse of the ancient, hidden, and powerful worlds through which he moves.
But this in no way insinuates that the story in Nightwise is thin. It’s fast paced, ever expanding, and atypical of supernatural tales in that while it has monsters, it stays deeply entrenched in the world of mankind – and it is not thin. It’s intelligent. (I marvel at the amount of research Mr. Belcher would have had to have gone through just to come up with the incantations that Laytham uses in the book.) It’s also raw and gritty. But be forewarned – this book is definitely not for youngsters. Depictions of sordid nightlife and human depravity which have absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural are given plenty of ink, as well as an underhanded respect for alternative lifestyles and philosophies. Also, there’s lots of swearing and a whole heap of death and torture and blood and gore… but as an integral – and unapologetic – part of the story.
My only disappointment was that Mr. Belcher’s female characters were nowhere near as interesting as the rank and file men. There’s an attempt at making Megan, who gets the most “screen time”, full of potential, and perhaps if he follows up with more “Nightwise” novels (which I definitely hope he will do) she will come into her own, but in this book she is little more than a prop; an intriguing and evocative prop, but a prop nonetheless. Still, that’s nowhere near a deal breaker.
Nightwise is a gripping, fast moving, explosive tale told in a voice that is both brash and acute. Laytham Ballard is a protagonist who is both honorable and abhorrent, charming and profane, the bad boy and the guy you definitely want on your side. But what he is up against is way worse. And no matter how rude, crude or downright selfish he may be, you’re going to be mighty glad he’s out there.
And you’re going to want to read more.
~ Sharon Browning