Having greatly enjoyed the first book of the White Dragon Black series, I was thrilled when the author contacted me to read and review this short story collection: in my blog post about Tomorrow Wendell I wrote about the many shadowed corners of this world I would have liked to explore, and this looked like the perfect opportunity to do so.
The tone of this collection starts in a somewhat lighter note than the first novel, at least judging by the Q&A interview with Jonathan Alvey himself: a fun, irreverent exchange of sentences that had me laughing out loud in many places. Given the darker mood of Tomorrow Wendell, this was a welcome change of pace, even though I later discovered that the vein of the individual stories goes from the light and humorous to the darkly dramatic, with many in-between nuances touching on different subjects like voodoo and message-delivering zombies or haunted houses hiding dangerous secrets.
The first story has a marked noir feel, with Alvey’s narrative recalling the voice-overs of genre movies and the arrival of a darkly alluring lady with a mysterious agenda completing the picture: this tale does not lack humor, though, and carries on in the playful tone of the introductory interview, leaving some threads hanging for what might be a continuation of the events in the future.
The illusion of lightness does not last long, though, since the second tale veers in a different direction, starting with a distraught and weeping father and continuing with a kidnapped child. There is no room for fun in a story where ghouls and blood are involved and in this one I had to re-assess my vision of the city of New Hades, especially in the description of the worst part of town where Alvey and the kidnapped child’s father go to retrieve the little girl: “where [..] dead men eked out a life stealing the dreams washed into the gutters (…) There, you stop to taunt death or dump the body”. That’s when I realized that not even the better parts of New Hades are left untouched by the darkness that lurks in every corner, from the evil glimpsed in the periphery of one’s vision: they might look cleaner, more ordered and peaceful, but they are not safe.
New Hades is both fascinating and scary, and I keep picturing it in my mind as a black and white background (again the comparison with noir movies from the ‘40s comes to the fore), a place where the days are short and nights last longer, a place where rain falls harder and the cold seeps right through your bones. What’s interesting is the way that magic has infiltrated the very fabric of the city, popping up in the most unlikely places, as it happens in one of the stories where a powerfully dangerous grimoire appears in the public library: that’s what makes New Hades so fascinating, because the events that involve Alvey and his clients give the city a Twilight-Zone-like quality that makes it unique.
Yet it’s in this kind of circumstance that Jonathan Alvey shines through, with his determination to save the innocents and those who can’t defend themselves, with his willingness to pay any price, no matter how steep, to succeed in his mission. That’s what made me like him in the first book and what reinforced that feeling in this one.
Jonathan Alvey is indeed a peculiar character wearing an outer shell of cynicism that hides his true nature: he’s more similar to the proverbial knight in shining armor than to the scruffy, heavily drinking and smoking individual the world sees. The price he pays for practicing magic is a costly one – addiction in the truest sense of the world, and a slow but certain erosion of his life force – but he’s prepared to pay it if it means keeping the world safe from the terrible things most people are unable to perceive or see.
At some point, someone asks him: “You really think you can save the world?”, to which Alvey replies: “No—just one person a day.” This is indeed Alvey in a nutshell – a person whose measure is given not by what meets the eye, but by the profound respect and care he enjoys from those he has befriended or helped. These people are the mirror that reflects the right image, the truest nature of this peculiar man.
I will certainly welcome more from this background and this character.
My Rating: 7,5/10