Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I couldn't stop comparing this book to the Dresden Files while I was reading it. I feel like this comparison is somewhat—but not entirely—unfair, because unlike the Dresden Files, this is not really a mystery. It's more of an action movie stuck inside a novel. Both the Dresden Files novels and Monster Hunter International deal with urban fantasy and feature a main character with a great voice, but that is about where the similarities end. Harry Dresden is a wizard; he sets traps and flings around magic to fight the forces of evil. Owen Z. Pitt is a monster hunter (and chartered accountant); he wields submachine shotguns and RPGs to fight the forces of evil. I can't help but make the comparison. Dresden Files has just burned itself into my brain as the golden standard for urban fantasy.
With that confession out of the way, I'm going to try not to hold Monster Hunter International up against the Dresden Files, or any other series for that matter. Although there are only so many ways to be original when writing about the classic monsters (e.g., vampires, zombies, werewolves), Correia has still managed to create a story that is entertaining and fresh. Correia has a talent for writing the types of "scene-and-sequel" action sequences that keep the book moving at a healthy pace. When Pitt is fighting monsters, I feel like I'm right there with him, hitting the ground, loading the guns, and coming back up to blow the head off an ugly beastie just before he bites off a piece of me. Monster Hunter International is full of those "fuck, yeah!" moments where the hero, against all odds, comes back with the full force of his awakened fury and doesn't just take down the bad guys but obliterates them. These moments are often accompanied by a somewhat camp utterance, but I think that's an appropriate homage to the monster action genre in general: the hero has to say something pithy just as he or she triumphs.
There were plenty of these in Monster Hunter International, but I'll highlight a few to give you a taste:
To this day I don't know why at that moment I felt the need to make a confession to my rapidly mutating boss. Even though I was in accordance with Texas state law, I was in direct violation of the company's workplace safety rule.
"You know that 'no weapons at work' policy?" I asked the twitching and growing hairy monstrosity standing less than ten feet from me. His yellow eyes bored into me with raw animal hatred. There was nothing recognizably human in that look.
"I never did like that rule," I said as I bent down and drew my gun from my ankle holster, put the front sight on the target and rapidly fired all five shots from my snub-nosed .357 Smith & Wesson into Mr. Huffman's body. God bless Texas.
Owen later gets fired from work for violating this rule. Then, toward the end of the book, Pitt is fighting a Master vampire, who learns that monster hunters don't bring a gun to a vampire fight; they bring lots of guns to a vampire fight:
"I've obtained the sacrifice, my lord," the vampire proclaimed loudly. Lying flat on my back, I brought my knee back to my chest, lifted my pant leg and pulled the .357 from my ankle holster.
Jaeger looked down at the little muzzle in wonderment.
"How many guns do you have?" he asked in exasperation.
As the above passages demonstrate, Correia obviously enjoys guns and shooting. This is not a passion I share with him, but I admit it lends a certain amount of veracity to the story. By knowing the difference—and taking the time to differentiate—between various types of guns, Correia's descriptions are transformed from vague, "I drew my gun. I dropped the gun. I drew another, different gun" to detailed explanations of why one gun is more appropriate for the situation than another. I never felt like it got out of hand though.
Also, the monsters in this book? Tough. Like, really tough. And scary because of that. These aren't the wimpy little human-like vampires from Twilight or even Buffy. Vampires, werewolves, wights, gargoyles—you name it, and it is nearly impossible to kill. So of course, Owen has to find a way. He gets pretty banged up in the process, so Correia has to rely on some handwaving to get Owen healed in time for his next big encounter. Aside from that kludge, however, I really appreciate the "difficulty level" that Correia sets for his characters. Yes, Owen does manage to kill all those monsters eventually (except for the ones that escape to set up sequels), but he has to work at it, even when he's equipped with Abomination, his shotgun/submachine gun/grenade launcher/bayonet thing.
So as an action book, as a monster-hunting book, Monster Hunter International is a clear success. And in general, its characters are engaging and well-rounded as well. I know this, because when the gang all fall into a trap set by the bad guys and have to fight their way out while surrounded by extra-dimensional demons, Correia began seriously threatening to kill off these characters, and I was scared for them. I didn't want them to die—partly because I felt like they were ripe as recurring characters in sequels, but also because I just liked them. And there was no way I would be able to enjoy the ending if everyone but Owen and his love interest died. That was probably the most harrowing chapter of the entire book. Supporting characters are fragile things, because unlike one's main character there is no expectation that a supporting character will survive any battle, climactic boss fight or no. I was fairly confident Owen would win in the end, but Correia made me wonder how many of his friends would die along the way.
Even though all his characters were round, some of them still made me uncomfortable with how close they came to stereotypical. Take Holly, for instance. She is the tough-as-nails stripper with a heart of gold. And Owen often describes how hot she is, and I couldn't help but groan and move on. Similarly, while I commend Correia for giving Owen an intellectual occupation like chartered accountant, he is just such a macho, macho man. Owen can't go more than a chapter without remarking on how wide his shoulders are or on the surface area of his chest or how they have to custom-order his armour or whatnot. I get it. He's strong and masculine and likes to shoot things.
Also, I can't stand how Correia develops, and resolves, the romance between Owen and Julie. Owen acts so dopey around her, and by itself that would be fine. But Julie—who, let us not forget, is technically one of Owen's bosses—already has a boyfriend, Grant. Another hotshot monster hunter, Grant naturally sees Owen as a threat to his alpha-male superiority, and the two of them come to blows. At one point, Grant has the opportunity to rescue Owen from nearly-almost-certain death and declines to do so, operating under the probably rational assumption that there wouldn't be enough time to save Owen anyway. Later, Owen overhears an argument between Julie and Grant where the latter confesses how he keeps reliving that moment and questioning whether he should still have tried to help Owen. As I read that scene, I did a small fist-pump and commended Correia for this turn of events. Until then, like Owen, I didn't understand what Julie could possibly see in Grant. Now there was something deeper, a more sensitive Grant who clearly could learn from his actions! The love triangle was finally becoming interesting.
And then Correia just puts Grant on a bus (TVTropes alert) so that Owen and Julie can hook up. Not a chapter after Grant's heart-to-heart with Julie, he gets captured by the Big Bad to become the requisite monster hunter sacrifice to power the Big Bad's magic ceremony. Suddenly, Grant becomes less than a minor character: we see him again, briefly, when Owen rescues him; then we learn from another character that Grant has decided to leave the organization and go work in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Owen and Julie have already started having sex. After she made so much noise earlier in the novel about how she was in a committed relationship, I just couldn't find it believable that she was willing to get over Grant so quickly.
These flaws tempered my enjoyment of Monster Hunter International but did not ruin the book for me. I feel like this is a series that has potential to improve greatly. Correia has managed to hook me with his skill at writing action scenes, not to mention Owen's voice as a narrator, and that is enough to give him a chance to show me he can grow as a writer. So I'll read Monster Hunter Vendetta (and not just because it also came with the Hugo Voter Packet) and see where the story goes next. While Monster Hunter International did not revolutionize my opinion of urban fantasy or monster-hunting stories, it definitely entertained. I suspect fans of this type of book will find the world Correia has created familiar yet fresh, and possibly even addictive.