Dark Currents, the anticipated debut to Jacqueline Carey’s new urban fantasy series Agent of Hel, got my attention back when it first came out. I saw it on io9, added it to my to-read list.
And promptly forgot about it.
Because that’s what happens when you have a list so long that even if you stop adding books to it today, it will take you about four years to get through it.
Fortunately, my library has my back. I ran across the paperback of Autumn Bones last week—yes, book 2 of the series, already in paperback. Clearly I’ve been remiss. So I did the usual dance of rushing over to the computer and checking if the library has book 1 and, better yet, if it’s available at that branch. The library does, and the book was, and that’s the story. Normally I don’t read new series back-to-back like this; I like to intersperse a few other books in between, just for breathing room. But I made an exception after finishing Dark Currents, because I really did like it, and I wanted to read more about Daisy Johanssen.
I’m going to be pretty positive about this book, because it was fun. It’s not dark, brooding urban fantasy, despite the title or the protagonist’s status as a hellspawn half-breed. Sure, Daisy could claim her birthright, become some kind of super-powered succubus demon, and break the Inviolate Wall and start Armageddon. But that would be a drag. Instead, she gets to play a kind of cross between supernatural diplomat and enforcer, and she even gets a sweet dagger while she’s doing it.
But I want to emphasize that even though I enjoyed the book, I don’t think it’s a great novel. Rather, it’s great at setting up a new series—and one of the reasons I wanted to read the second book so badly was to see if Carey could bottle that lightning again. (Spoiler: she does, and it’s even better the second time around.) Like many other series in this style, Dark Currents is better more for the promise of the future than the delivery of the present.
I mean, the mystery is third-rate at best. A kid from out of town drowns. It looks like an accident, but there was magic involved. All signs point to a ghoul who has since skipped town, but there might be some other players in the game. Daisy, whose role as Hel’s liaison has, until now, mostly consisted of busting fairies who are messing with tourists, suddenly finds herself with an immortal-killing dagger and a lot of pressure on her to solve this thing before the outside world decides to wipe Pemkowet’s eldritch community off the map.
Carey’s approach to how much regular humans know about the supernatural is an interesting middle point between the two extreme positions. In this world, people are aware that the supernatural—or eldritch, as Carey prefers to refer to it—exists. But for such beings to have a presence in the mortal world, they need a “functioning underworld”—literally a domain beneath the human community in question, presided over by a “deity of a non-apex faith”—i.e., a god or goddess relegated to myths and legends by the rampage of Abrahamic religion in the last millennium. As the title of the series implies, the Norse goddess Hel presides over Pemkowet’s eldritch community. Everyone within Pemkowet pretty much understands that supernatural beings, like vampires and werewolves, exist; they are cool with it to some degree or another, or else they wouldn’t be living there. Outside Pemkowet and other cities with functioning underworlds, it becomes more hearsay, kind of like how we hear about exotic animals co-existing with humans in far-away countries, but until we actually go there, we don’t grasp the reality for ourselves.
Daisy is somewhat unique. Her mother accidentally summoned a demon on a trip to Pemkowet, not knowing the summoning would work, and that the demon would be an incubus who impregnates her. Fast forward twenty years, and Daisy has grown up in Pemkowet, mostly as an ordinary kid only somewhat bullied and marked by her strange heritage. She is special not just because she is hellspawn but also because she is hellspawn with a mother who loved her. This seems to be an important fact, and the connections Daisy has to other people—mundane and eldritch—are strengths rather than weaknesses. She isn’t just the “feisty kickass woman protagonist” that threatens to be the staple stereotype of urban fantasy. She’s a little less experienced, a little less sure of herself, and she’s more interested in keeping the peace than kicking ass and taking names. Even after she gets her dagger, she is quite reluctant to wield it.
I like that Daisy forges a tenuous alliance with the New Ghoul in Town instead of just threatening him. I like that Carey teases out the sexual tension between Daisy and a couple of the other characters but does not turn it into a major romantic melodrama like some urban fantasy series do. I like that she has actual, complicated relationships with a best friend and her mother and a kind-of-guardian who happens to be a lamia. The supernatural elements of Dark Currents add flavour and suspense and conflict—but deep down, this is about being human. And you need that grounding if you want to tell a successful story.
This is a very different book, very different series, from the Kushiel books. Carey is clearly not a one-note author: she embraces the fast-paced, stream-of-consciousness narration so common to this genre. The stakes are much more personal, the intrigue less political. While Carey’s writing retains the sexual awareness that was so prominent in the Kushiel series, Daisy is not Phèdre.
I’m not really one either to condemn or promote urban fantasy as an entire genre. It has really become a very diverse market these days. I’m still interested in finding more urban fantasy that doesn’t follow the mystery/police/detective formula that seems to dominate right now. As far as that formula goes, however, Dark Currents represents a promising new angle from a writer who has already proved herself to me. This is normally the part where I would say I can’t wait to read the next book—but I finished it this morning over breakfast. So … yeah. I guess I need to go find book three?
in this book. That’s one “gah” every 21 pages. I don’t find that excessive, personally, and it didn’t bother me when I was reading. Obviously your mileage may vary.)