Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death.
One inbetweener is a sorcerer. He’s summoned a horde of implike ngks capable of eliminating spirits, and they’re spreading through the city like a plague. They’ve already taken out some of NYCOD’s finest, leaving Carlos desperate to stop their master before he opens up the entrada to the Underworld—which would destroy the balance between the living and the dead.
But in uncovering this man’s identity, Carlos confronts the truth of his own life—and death.…
Older’s debut novel, Half-Resurrection Blues feels like an update of the urban fantasy formula for the twenty-first century: a cast dominated by people of colour, in a New York dominated (at least in Carlos’ circle) by people of colour, where people of colour can take all sorts of roles – including being queer. Older has long been outspoken on the importance of diversity in our literature, and this novel feels like it might be him setting out his stall to sell the rest of us on the idea; the diversity of his cast isn’t heavy-handed or emphasised, it just is, built into his world the way it is in ours. Half-Resurrection Blues has queer people of colour in a happy relationship, has business-owning people of colour, has all kinds of people; and Older has simply written the world he observes, rather than the whitewashed one we’re often presented with.
There is one respect in which Half-Resurrection Blues is less diverse than most urban fantasy, mind you, and that’s in its supernatural. Older has ghosts, humans, and the inbetweeners… and that’s it; no werewolves or vampires in sight, a refreshing change from much of the genre. That doesn’t mean Older doesn’t have a number of tricks up his sleeve; there are some other ghostbusting ghastlies in there (the ngks), and spirits are much scarier than you might think from films like Casper or Ghostbusters, more reminiscent of the hungry spirits of the Homeric underworld than an angelic choir with harps. This lets Older create a real sense of dread, without easy answers; there’s no silver bullet here, no holy water and cross, only grim determination and stubborn dedication to finding a way out. That’s a real strength of Half-Resurrection Blues, and it comes through incredibly strongly that there are no easy fixes in this world.
It’s also a feature of the protagonist of the novel, Carlos Delacruz. Delacruz steadily comes apart across the course of the novel as competing demands pull at his attention and his soul, and Older records this stunningly in first person; from drunken levity with ghostly acquaintances to the agony of having been pinned to a couch with his own sword, we really get inside Carlos’ head, and Half-Resurrection Blues is extremely good at making this a very vivid thing. Grief is crushing, levity is lifting, and when Carlos is struggling, the prose isn’t a struggle to read but it makes the reader feel his struggle. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, especially over the length of a novel, but Older has definitely mastered it in his debut.
Carlos isn’t the only vivid character though; Half-Resurrection Blues is full of little grace-notes of characterisation, from Kia, the assistant to/manager of Baba Eddie the santero, to Baba Eddie himself (the way Older describes him lighting up is amazing, and gives so much character to him through such a simple process), to Baba Eddie’s partner the businessman Russell, who only appears briefly; but also the spirits, Riley and Dro especially, both of whom Older suffuses with a sense of frustration and futility that is, again, Homeric in scope and kind (cf. Hom. Od. 11.545ff). Half-Resurrection Blues is a novel that is paradoxically full of life, from the house-ghost Mama Esther to the brief appearances of characters like Victor; but also with a hole at its centre, the central antagonist, almost vampiric on the way he sucks life out of the novel. It’s an amazing feat of writing to make him such a black hole in the narrative without making him simply the embodiment of evil; rather, Older makes it clear he’s got his own agenda, and in his own eyes is doing good – but doesn’t let him become some kind of antihero either, a really good piece of writing.
If there is one criticism to lay at the feet of this novel, it’s that Older’s pace really does flag at times. While on the whole Half-Resurrection Blues is an absolute breeze to read, there are times when Carlos is floundering about that just feel slack, where keeping reading can become quite difficult; and there are points when the narrative gets bogged down with itself, slowing to a crawl, frustrating the reader with the choppiness and uneveness of it. But on the whole it does have a very fast clip and drags the reader through the novel, not pausing for breath; which perhaps makes those moments when it does stagger all the more noticable.
Half-Resurrection Blues is, though, an urban fantasy novel for the twenty first century, for the reality of a diverse world, and for those who enjoy fun books. Praise to Daniel José Older for such a successfully executed debut.