24 September, 2021

Litstack Rec: The Refugees: Stories & Nightwise

Nightwise, by R. S. Belcher

In the ‘seedy underbelly of today’s occult underworld,” 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. And he has no compunction about killing innocents if it furthers his goals or takes him out of harm’s way.

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Not your typical hero.

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, a former partner now dying of AIDs, asks Laytham to find the man who was behind the murder of his wife, 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 is not just some garden variety criminal. His past includes Serbian war crimes, blood sacrifices, possible entanglement with the 9/11 conspiracy 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. 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.

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 must 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 the weak of heart. 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 but she is little more than a prop; an intriguing and evocative prop, but a prop nonetheless. Still, that’s not even close to being a deal breaker.

Nightwise is a gripping, 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.

—Sharon Browning

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