Oy. This was a slog, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. On the surface, this is the kind of modern urban magic thing I tend to like, with enough interesting bits tossed in to make it fun.
But it was still a slog.
Oh, the book was good – make no mistake, this was an interesting story, well written, and a different look at magic. In short, The Unquiet Dead is the story of Tyler, a newish necromancer in Toronto, trying to learn his abilities, limits, and why there have been a rash of suicides of late, echoing a rash of suicides in the past.
In short order, we learn that his friends (a mix of magical and mundane) are all that stand between Toronto and a big bad from the other side getting loose, and killing…as I read it…Toronto. Through this, we get to learn more about the past of the city, the metaphysic of author Chris Dubecki’s world, and how the CN Tower messes with magic too well to be an accident. I actually got a huge kick out of that – seems like a good hook for a follow-up novel. In this world, there are psychics, were, vampires, necromancers (which means ghosts, zombies, etc.), and wild talents (which seems to be the catch-all for any other magic).
The plot is introduced very quickly, and then shoved aside to focus more on exposition of the world, Tyler’s training, and other aspects of the novel.
All things being equal, the measure of a book is ‘did I enjoy it’, and in that end, I did. I think it might have worked better as a 2-3 book arc, since it seemed like there was a lot of stuff crammed in that might have benefited from more exploration – or from trimming. This kind of thing goes both ways usually.
I opened with it being a slog, and as I write this, i can’t help but wonder why that was. Some of it was the way the book was constructed, with the tangential aspects that make a book more than a mindless action thing, and those tangents being just (to me) exactly the wrong length and content. Some was the quantity and occasional sameness of the characters – several tertiary characters seemed to be the same person, which slowed things down. And then there is the part below, where some spoilers dwell.
Book reviews are almost all based on the reader’s perception, so to is this one. And as such, any comments that are made are my own, and based solely on how I read the book. I know, right, a disclaimer? But there is a reason for this, and that reason is best summed up by comparing two characters, one from The Unquiet Dead, and one from Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen series.
In The Unquiet Dead, Tyler is bisexual. Not like that matters – it does not – but my take on the writing was that it was supposed to. That was part of what made this one harder to read, my impression that his sexuality was supposed to matter somehow. It doesn’t (not just to me) – not to the plot, to the other characters, to any aspect of the book. But it sure seemed like it was supposed to. It was introduced, and used, like a bit of a club – see, bi characters exist and you have to face it! It wasn’t important in any way to the character, plot, side characters, bad guys, etc. It simply didn’t matter, and that made the approach to it feel like it was shoved in to make some kind of statement. And that is just bad writing.
By way of comparison, in the Velveteen series, the superhero Princess (the living embodiment of young girls’ dreams…think Disney times a million) is trans. And it not only doesn’t matter, it feels like it doesn’t matter. Of course she is. So? It isn’t a hiccup in the story, it isn’t a point that feels out of place, it simply is. Like Velveteen having brown hair. Kind of unimportant. There are also gay characters – same thing. Doesn’t matter. It just is.
And that is the difference. I actually stopped The Unquiet Dead to read Velveteen vs The Seasons. The approach to (pardon the clunky phrasing here) non-hetero and trans characters was so vastly different… No, that isn’t accurate. The approach was the same – it is not important to the story, to the character’s motivation/interestingness/utility, but the presentation was different. In McGuire’s work, it was seamless and smoothly done. In fact, as I recall, when the Princess was introduced, I had to back up to reread the intro, since her being born him was referred to, and I went right past it, not feeling thrown from the story. I was thrown when Tyler’s bisexuality was introduced.
Message fiction is fine – but sacrificing story to message is not. It makes the book less than it could be otherwise. While there is nothing at all wrong with how Tyler is portrayed, the way his sexuality is brought up could have been far, far better.