Underground Reading: Vanishing Ladies by Ed McBain
Underground Reading: Shadowdale by Richard Awlinson

New Releases: Desdaemona by Ben Macallan

DesdaemonaDesdaemona is the young adult urban fantasy debut from "Ben Macallan", one of the pen names of the experienced writer, Chaz Brenchley. Mr. Brenchley is the author of the ambitious Outremer series of epic fantasies and some outstanding stand-alone horror and dark fantasy novels.

The hero of Desdaemona is Jordan, who seems like an ordinary seventeen year old (down to the traditionally-dubious fashion and hair decisions). It is quickly revealed that Jordan is anything but normal. He's got a bit of magic (mostly in his left hand) and a lot of occult trivia. Jordan, as per the urban fantasy YA standards, knows things, things about the real (imaginary) world. To spice things up, he's also on the run from powerful, unnamed enemies.

Perhaps it is this last point that best defines Jordan's character. He's perpetually on the lam, a twitchy, rat-like survivor type. He's an expert on paranoia and escape routes. Desdaemona is told in the first person and the reader is swimming, cover-to-cover, in Jordan's desperation. Still, despite his neurotic instincts (or because of them), Jordan tries to be a good guy - he's got a soft spot for other runaways and does his best to protect them and make sure they safely go home.

This charitable impulse is what connects Jordan and the titular Desdaemona. Desdaemona (I'm officially copying-and-pasting that name from this point onwards) is a Daemon, someone contracted into the wars and struggles between the world's secret Powers. Her Top Trump value is pretty high - she's nastier than a whole pack of vampires and can smack her way through a brick wall. Plus, she's a hottie. When Desi asks Jordan, with his teenage hormones, to help her track down her missing sister, he doesn't stand a chance. 

It seems that Fay (mortal) inadvertantly got herself entangled in the real (imaginary) world as well - she shacked up with the elder son of an immortal house, got pregnant and, in a panic, got an abortion. The family, immortal/grumpy/kinda mean, is out for blood. Desi and Jordon need to find Fay before they do. 

The task isn't easy. Desdaemona and Jordan both bring a lot of their own baggage on the journey with them. Not literally (they both travel light), but in the form of infernal enemies, dark secrets and horrendous emotional problems. They make it worse for themselves by immediately hooking up. The hormonally ravaged and cripplingly insecure Jordan doesn't know where he stands with Desi, doesn't know if she can protect him and certainly doesn't know if he can trust her. In their search for the missing girl, the two "friends" battle shapeshifters, elementals, vampires, demons, warlocks and one another. 

Desdaemona begins in a jerky, stop-motion way - periods of chatting and omnious plot-teasing, punctuated by brief bursts of explosive, supernatural violence. As the introductions are made and the greater plot becomes clear, the book settles into an ever-increasing crescendo of supernatural dick-swinging. First Jordan fights X, who is the worst thing ever. Then he fights Y, who is really the worst thing ever. Then he encounters Z, who is really, really the most powerful thing of all. After that, Jordan runs into AA, who could take Z with one appendage tied behind his back. Then BB, who is really, REALLY the most powerful thing in the universe. Escalate. Rinse. Repeat. If this seems a familiar approach to storytelling, then you've read Simon Green.

Mr. Macallan is good enough to keep the tension going though most of this, but even with his talent, the Wedding Cake of Badassitude gets old after a while. There's always something even nastier around the next corner. No wonder Jordan is so paranoid - he's on the bottom rung of an infinitely horrible ladder. By the end of the book, Big Bads are rushing fowards on every page and an onslaught of JRPG style death moves are practically setting the paper on fire.

The book's writing style parallels this on a cellular level: Something happens. It really happens. It definitely happens. The repetition is tense, but, again, overused. There's rarely an event that goes by without it being the worst thing ever. As bad as it gets. The worst. Wherever the book can wedge in a bit more drama, it does. In triplicate. 

All that out of the way, there's a lot to recommend Desdaemona as well.

First, Jordan relies on wits rather than brawn. He knows he's propping up the base of the food pyramid and has developed a set of skills that largely involve "running away without panicking too much". He's brave enough to keep from being loathsome (and to keep the story going), but he's got a realistic sense of his own capabilities.

Second, Jordan is a perverse sort of outlier in his own universe. Everyone else is a sort of walking urban fantasy YA stereotype. Cooler than cool with impossible hair, black leather and perfect skin. The Harley-driving, jazz-playing, sleekly-wardrobed Desdaemona is over the top - she does everything but wear sunglasses at night. Jordan, however, is a goof. He doesn't want to live in this world - he's running from it, in fact. Everyone else can suavely drop-kick an automobile, he's had enough. He's awkwardly 17, gangly, badly-attired, horny and hungry. He doesn't know his fine wines and girls make him itchy in strange places.

With this chink in the armor of urban fantasy, Mr. Macallan uses Jordan's perspective to show that, beneath the oh-so-cool exterior, all the other Powers and beings in Desdaemona are equally uncomfortable in their skin. Vampire/daemon/werewolf/hell-prince/elementals might act like they know what's going on, but they're just as shy, insecure and screwed up as everyone else. This is a bizarrely mature message for a perpetually immature subgenre. I'm interested to see if it sticks.

Thirdly - and finally - just when the Greenian power escalations are hitting their most ridiculous at the book's conclusion, Desdaemona busts out a few unexpected twists. The book's mysteries aren't especially mysterious (at least to noir fans), but the way the characters behave does come as a surprise in the final pages. Despite all the melodrama and the neuroses, I wrapped up Desdaemona keen to know what happened next. The initial mystery may be solved, but Jordan's life is definitely, irrevocably changed.

Desdaemona isn't redefining the young adult urban fantasy subgenre, but nor is it letting it the side down. Although the enemy ziggurat is a little over the top and the hormones are palpable, Mr. Macallan never panders with his violence or sex. Jordan isn't a traditional hero - he is crafty and clever rather than brave and dumb. After a gravelly start, the implausible plot moves swiftly towards an explosive and intriguing climax. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Macallan sneaks in a wee bit of insight. Powers and leather are quite cool, but they won't make you any better off in the end.


Desdaemona by Ben Macallan is out on 14 June 2011 from Solaris.