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When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.

Some first lines do not fool around. In a  short burst they let you know straight away what you’re in for by choosing to read this book. There are lines that grab your attention (“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”), lines designed to raise a wry chuckle before the action commences (“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”) and then there are writers like Marjorie Liu, happy to deliver a one-line manifesto for the fun she has in mind.

Maxine Kiss has lived with whole life with the knowledge that the world is full of dangers most people will never have to face. She, unfortunately, has been raised for precisely that purpose. The last in a long line of women known as Hunters, she has grown up to expect nothing more than a short life of pain and violence. Her enemies are a host of demons who hide in human skins, possessing them and transforming innocents into zombies, foot-soldiers in a millenia-old conflict. Maxine’s job is to hunt them down, give them no quarter. She is not unarmed, she has powers of her own in the form of five demon tattoos that come to life at night and protect her. During the day they sleep, but the tattoos themselves act as a shield against any harm.

Unfortunately for the world Maxine has found a reason not to fight anymore. She is beginning to doubt her mission. And her timing could not be worse.

Hunters do not typically allow men into their lives, but Maxine’s is going to be made far more complicated by several. First there is her lover, the ex-priest Grant with mysterious abilities of his own relating to synaesthesia. Then there is Jack, an elderly archaeologist who knew her grandmother and seems awfully familiar with her history. Tracker, a creature who looks like a man, centuries old and bound to Maxine for reasons he refuses to explain, also enters her life unexpectedly (he pushes her in front of a bus – but he apologises later). Finally there is Byron, a homeless boy who witnessed the murder of a private detective who was on the trail of Maxine herself. She has no idea who paid the detective to track her down – in fact the police are curious about that very same point – but she recognizes that the boy himself is special. It is rare for her to see demons and zombies fighting over anyone else beside her self.

Not only has Maxine’s personal life dulled the edge of her mission, a creature from behind the Veil, the crumbling barrier between this world and the realm of demons who have not walked the earth for thousands of years, has escaped. It wears Maxine’s face, it hunts her friends, taunts her with the secrets she has not yet been told and it cannot be harmed by any weapon she has.

In order to beat this creature – in order to survive – Maxine will have to face up to some painful facts about her own family.

Marjorie Liu‘s first novel in her Hunter Kiss series does a fine job of establishing Maxine Kiss as a modern day heroine, but also delivers some impressive world-building. By the last chapter there are plenty of mysteries still to be resolved, but many questions have been answered. Liu’s own mythology borrows liberally from several sources, but still retains a sense of novelty.

As such the action proceeds with thankfully few gratuitous fight scenes. In fact at one point Maxine breaks away from her own troubles to help out wth a natural disaster in the Middle East. It is an interesting moment. So often novels involving a hero fighting to save the earth from the apocalypse seem painfully insulated from very real catastrophes that happen every day. Liu also returns the concept of the zombie to its vodun roots, a body possessed by an evil spirit, or demon.

What is at times unusual is the lack of female characters in the book. There are two demonesses, Blood Mama the zombie queen and the creature that escapes the veil; a madwoman cared for by Grant; and a colleague of Jack’s who is fond of unicorns. Maxine herself refers to her constant companions, the demonic tattoos, as ‘the boys’. She’s surrounded by testosterone.

An entertaining and punchy yarn.

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There’s something about your own name in someone else’s handwriting that gives you an instant blip of recognition, even when you meet it in unusual circumstances. And this certainly counted as unusual in my book. For one thing, it was written backwards, from right to left: but then, that was because it had been written on the inside of the car windscreen, by someone sitting in the driver’s seat. More strikingly, it was written in blood.

When I first read Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know I was pleased with his mixture of Chandlerisms and references to Vertigo Comic’s John Constantine, with protagonist Felix Castor also a Scouser with paranormal abilities. Thankfully Carey was able to go further with his own literary sandbox, introducing themes and ideas that might not have gone over to well with DC editors looking to develop further sequels to the mediocre Constantine film. The three titles in the series preceding the subject of today’s review are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, with Felix Castor a sometime-exorcist by trade, trying to make a living in a post-Millennium London that is teaming with werewolves, zombies, demons and ghosts.

This book quickly introduces the status quo, without leaving new readers lost. I would recommend reading Castor’s previous adventures, just to get a feel for the universe Carey has fashioned, as well as the excellent supporting cast.

Thicker Than Water opens with a daring heist, of sorts, with Castor and his partner Juliet (a succubus whose actual name is Ajulutsikael, but that’s not important right now) absconding from a private hospital with a very special patient. Some years ago Castor botched an exorcism involving his friend Rafael Ditko, which body was then transformed into a cell for a very powerful demon named Asmodeus. For years Castor has played a game of brinkmanship with the creature, managing to keep it sedated for brief periods so that Ditko can enjoy some peace. Until that is word got around about the powerful demon trapped in a human’s body and a court order was issued releasing him into the custody of old rival’s of Castor’s, who dearly wish to see what makes a creature such as Asmodeus tick.

After everything seems to go according to plan, Castor tries to lie low. Ditko is safely stashed away at a friend’s househouse. His landlord Pen gets to visit her old boyfriend for a conjugal visit or two while the demon is slumbering. And his buddy Nicky, the paranoid zombie, has invited him around to watch a private screening of Blade Runner in his own restored cinema. Then everything goes wrong fast.

Castor is implicated in the stabbing of a man named Kenny Seddon. Not only did he grow up with the victim in Liverpool, the severely wounded man managed to write the exorcist’s name in his own blood at the crime scene. As a suspect Castor is ordered to stay at home for questioning, but suspecting a fit-up, he returns to investigate Seddon’s home at Salisbury estate, a vast perpendicular warren of tower flats and narrow over-passes. There he discovers a malign, vicious miasma of evil, infecting the ordinary families living in the towers with a thirst for blood and violence. Somehow it is all connected to Felix and his childhood. And only Asmodeus knows what it wants.

First off this book is a great leap in quality from the preceding entries. I enjoyed them for what they were, but thought the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin. Carey has positioned all his pieces nicely for this book, allowing for greater depth with a more personal touch entering the proceedings. Castor’s childhood and his relationship with his brother Matt the priest is dwelled upon, we learn more about the nature of demons, adding to the already impressive world-building of the series and his rivalry with the demon Asmodeus finally comes to the fore.

New characters are introduced, including a zombie with a woman’s voice and a team of Catholic exorcists with fewer qualms about eliminating souls than Castor. The overall feel of the book is that of a more pop-culture literate William Blatty, with a fine line in Scouse banter. There’s even a dig at Blair-era Labour cynicism, as well as themes relating to adolescent self-harm.

Castor’s the kind of bloke you’d enjoy having a pint with, but would never want to owe a favour to. Check out this series and enjoy his company – from a distance.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

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