Half-Resurrection Blues is a book that breathes new life into the venerable urban fantasy sub-genre with a fresh, noir-infused perspective. The action takes place in a fantastic New York City that realistic and totally different from how NYC is usually depicted. For the most part, NYC is an obnoxious setting. I blame this on non-native New Yorkers who move there from wherever they grew up and never get over how lucky and special living in the Big Apple makes them feel. These folks seem totally oblivious to the fact that some people choose not to live in NYC. If you live there and you’re happy about it: great. I’m happy for you. But the constant use of iconic landmarks, city skylines, and trendy neighborhoods just feels like listening to someone who can’t stop telling you that they are vegan, or paleo, or doing Crossfit.
But Older’s NYC is not Hollywood’s NYC. There’s none of the romanticized splendor nor the voyeuristic grit. It’s a city where real people live, not because they are fulfilling a childhood fantasy, but because it’s their home.1 As a result, his setting took on a new life of its own. It was at once more vivid and real and stranger and alien. It’s the only time NYC has actually been an interesting setting to me.
Older applied the same perspective to identity issues within the book. Virtually all of the characters are working class people of color (when they aren’t from other periods of history entirely). That’s not to say that white, college-educated folks don’t show up. They do, but I’m pretty sure not a single one of them is named. They appear on the periphery, inhabiting another world that isn’t relevant to Older’s characters or the action of his story. This may sound like a political gimmick—and as a social conservative I’m the type to suspect political gimmickry—but in Older’s hands it is organic, convincing, and integral to the story. I never got the impression he was making a political point. He was simply telling his story, and doing an amazing job at it.
This was especially true when it came to the magic system of Older’s book. There wasn’t a single vampire or werewolf in sight (as far as I can recall), and instead of the Eurocentric magic of most urban fantasy (Irish fae, Norse gods, English ), the magic and creatures in Older’s book were a fusion of cosmopolitan global traditions with modern innovation that was weird, compelling, and starkly unique. Of course we’ve all seen this attempted many times before, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off convincingly until now.
As much as I loved the setting, however, what really made Half-Resurrection Blues stand out is Older’s prose. It hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Seriously, this was a book I stopped listening to several times just to savor the prose. This book was one of the most electric reading experiences I can remember. Or, as I should say, listening experiences.
In general, I find reading books or listening to audiobooks to be equivalent. Up until reading Half-Resurrection Blues, I had only one exception to this general equivalence rule: linguistics. In particular, anything by John McWhorter has to be listened to. Too much of the linguistic content depends on the precise differences in pronunciation that he expertly and effortlessly highlights when he reads his own books. Half-Resurrection Blues, which Older narrated himself, is now my second exception. In this case it’s because many passages in the book read more like poetry—fast-paced, relentless poetry—rather than prose. I don’t think anyone else could have captured the rhythms of the text the way Older does, and I don’t think those rhythms would have come across just reading the book, either. Poetry is meant to be heard rather than read, and nobody reads it better than the poet.
Half-Resurrection is not a perfect book, however. The plot veers towards the formulaic, especially at the end. Certain decisions are made to the detriment of this novel in the interest of transforming the book into a color-by-numbers urban fantasy series-launcher. The language is also absolutely full of profanity. I know this doesn’t matter to a lot of readers, but it does matter do me. It wasn’t too bothersome in his book for some reason, but it’s worth noting for folks considering picking up the novel for themselves.
I preordered the sequel, Midnight Taxi Tango, as soon as I could. I’ve been really, really looking forward to it. But I haven’t started it yet. Partly it’s because I want to focus on Hugo-eligible books for now (and Midnight Taxi Tango won’t be eligible until next year), but even more than that: something that I’m looking forward to this much has to be savored.