Tag Archives: forests of the night

The Light Shines in a Trenchcoat

Reading 150I’ve recently come to appreciate the singular pleasure of a good detective story. I’ve been on a bit of a run with them of late, and I think it started with the broken-down post-millennial duo of True Detective‘s Hart and Cohle. It took Nic Pizzolatto’s spitshine of the detective story to really get me to sink my teeth into it, to understand the very interesting places it could take you. Since then I’ve been reading them in various genre mash-ups almost exclusively.

First stop: Harry Dresden and the modern-fantastic world of the Dresden Files. I’m mostly familiar with the setting through the excellent RPG, but I read the first book (Storm Front) and found it pretty OK. The second — Fool Moon — features the wizard Harry battling a host of different werewolf factions, each with their different abilities and goals. I’m a sucker for modern fantasy and especially werewolves, so this story was right up my alley. It’s also a notable improvement on the first novel in the series, so I’m excited to get to the rest of them. There are fifteen(!!) volumes so far; I have a lot of catching up to do.

After that I read two books in the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. The first book is about a New Hampshire detective named Hank Palace solving a murder set up to look like a suicide, six months before an asteroid plows into the planet — likely destroying all life on Earth. The second, Countdown City, picks up a mere two and a half months from impact. Winters takes great pains to imagine what America would look like when civilization has essentially laid down to die; individuals abandon their lot in life to do the things they’ve always wanted and society grinds to a halt. People who stick to their posts are suddenly the crazy ones, so Detective Palace cuts a really unusual figure in the world of the novel. He’s fascinating, and the book tackles head-on one of the things that most fascinates me about pre-apocalyptic literature — the way people behave when the pretense of civilization is stripped away completely.

In many ways, the pulp-novel detective is a lone figure of morality standing out in the background of a complicated and semi-lawless world. In almost all of the detective stories I’ve read so far (admittedly, a small sample size), the protagonist is of a type: tall but not physically threatening, with a single-minded focus on solving the case, an eye towards clothes or accessories that have deep personal symbolism for them and a knack for getting the crap kicked out of them. Before the current run of detective stories I read (and reviewed) Forests of the Night by S.A. Swann, another sci-fi detective story featuring an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger named Nohar Rajasthan. Harry, Hank and Nohar are thematic brothers of a sort, all idealists with a pragmatic view of the world.

I have a massive soft spot for characters who give themselves over to an ideal, even though they’re painfully aware of their limitations. None of these guys are the paragon of law and order, but they believe in the ideals of justice, fair play and morality. The fantastic backdrops of their settings make the world that much more wild and dangerous, but they stick it out just the same. Morality is different when you’re sharing the world with a host of species who are, in effect, alien. How do you tell a vampire that killing is wrong, especially when it probably looks at human beings the way we look at cattle? How do you deal with the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of a werewolf, where a sentient being really isn’t in control of themselves in certain situations? Do you still punish a good man just because he turns into a monster under circumstances not under his control?

The Last Policemen trilogy takes this devotion to law and order to an existential extreme. Everyone knows that there is an end date to our civilization, so what’s the point of keeping it going until then? The idea shows us just how fragile the agreements we make for one another are, and the value of keeping them anyway. There was a really striking passage in Countdown City that perfectly encapsulates this:

Because a promise is a promise…and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.

The detectives in these stories have made promises to help people however they can, and they will not let themselves off the hook on that. Even if they get it wrong, even if they put themselves in physical danger, even if helping people puts them at cross-purposes with the law at times. In many ways, these guys are superheroes without the “super”; all they have is the rugged determination that they have to do the right thing because if they don’t, who will?

There’s something tremendously engaging about that to me; the deeply-flawed man, shoring up the doubts and weaknesses in his mind with the symbols of moral authority he feels attached to, fighting his own character as well as the darker forces in the world to serve this ideal that may never be attained. It’s so hard to engage with the world that flies so consistently in the face of that ideal; it’s one of the reasons why fundamentalists create echo chambers for themselves. But here is our noble detective, well aware of the weakness and wickedness of men, striving to be something more while accepting the world just as it is.

I’ll be moving away from detective novels for a little while — the third book in the Liveship Traders trilogy has been calling my name for some time now — but it’s nice to know that Harry and Hank (and even Nohan) have new tests waiting for them in future books. I’ll be cheering them on again soon.


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Book Review: Forests of the Night by S. Andrew Swann

Reading 150S.A. Swann’s first novel — the beginning of a thematic trilogy — is set in a (by now) near-future America. It’s a 1990s cyberpunk-ish future, actually, where future-tech is still wired and location-based, the nation’s cities are in decline, and a world war involving nuclear weapons don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization as we know it. Japan and India are wastelands now, and the soldiers who were genetically engineered to fight in these wars have settled into an uneasy peace-time where they’re second-class citizens.

Nohar Rajasthan is the descendant of one of those soldiers, a human-animal hybrid named a ‘moreau’ for obvious reasons. He’s scraping together a good-enough existence as a private eye, living in the ghetto reserved for his kind. One day, a genetically-engineered human (called “frankensteins”) approaches him about investigating the murder of a baseline human. And if that didn’t make him uneasy enough, the victim just so happens to be linked to a well-known anti-moreau politicians with dreams of becoming a Senator. Despite his better judgement, he takes the case and quickly gets involved in a much bigger situation, because that’s how these things go.

Forests of the Night is a straightforward hybrid of detective noir and cyberpunk thriller, and it works pretty well. Swann has a solid handle on the tropes and structure of a good detective story, and he plugs in his own imaginative spins quite easily. This type of story hinges on the personality of its main character, how well the motivations of its supporting cast stays hidden (and seems plausible once they’re revealed) and how well you’re able to keep up with the many twists in the plot. I think it works on at least two of three levels, though I imagine your mileage may vary with the third.

Nohar is an uplifted tiger, essentially; a massive guy (around 8 feet and 500 pounds) who wants to do his work while staying out of trouble. In the grand noir tradition, however, trouble seems to find him no matter what. What’s interesting about Nohar, obviously, is his physical difference — we really buy into his character whenever Swann thinks through how life would be different for a guy with fur and claws. For the most part, that’s the only thing that really serves to set Nohar apart. He follows the template of your basic noir detective — gruff and stoic, with reserves of inner pain and a heart of gold. He doesn’t get in many fights because of a mental block, of sorts. When a switch gets flipped, he’s fantastically deadly, but turning on The Beast leaves him drained and shaky afterwards. It’s kind of interesting that we have a protagonist who is more than physically capable of wrecking house, but doesn’t do so because the drawbacks are far too high.

How could you say no to this cover?

Much tiger. Very wow.

The world that Nohar inhabits is pretty interesting as well. There’s a lot of social parallels between moreaus and just about any other minority with its own insular culture, and that part in particular helped to draw me in to the setting. Moreytown is a run-down area in Cleveland long ago abandoned by most humans, patrolled by a single pair of policemen to make sure any trouble inside the neighborhood doesn’t spill out into the rest of the city. Crumbling buildings, a thriving set of street gangs, bars with its own set of regulars and addicts — Moreytown has the works. And the people who get along inside of it are largely accepting of their fate, generally disinterested in a wider world that they see as hostile. Any involvement with humans, whether or not it’s positive on the surface, is a harbinger of trouble. It reminds me of my neighborhood growing up, come to think of it. The black urban community thinks the same way of the larger, white-dominated world around them.

Which is why it’s so odd that the one black person encountered in Forests of the Night — a cab driver that Nohar hires when he needs to check out a bunch of places around town — seems right out of central casting for an 80s cop movie. She’s a minor character in every possible way, but she still peppers her speech with outdated slang. “Sheeeee-it,” she says when she sees that her fare is a moreau.

The supporting cast, in general, are unquestionable allies of Nohar and his quest to uncover the truth. There’s Stephanie Weir, a human romantically connected to the victim fulfilling the femme fatale role. Manny, a mongoose moreau and Nohar’s best friend, is the voice of reason. And Angel is a lepine moreau who offers street-level pieces of the puzzle while being generally “tough” and obnoxious. Imagine a little rabbit voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, and you get the idea. We get a better sense of Nohar through his interactions with these people, and they offer vastly different perspectives of the world that help to deepen it and give it weight. For the most part, the world-building is deftly handled through character arcs and interactions, so well done there.

The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many players involved in so many different layers that it’s a little difficult to follow how one piece of the puzzle fits into the next. We don’t really get a good high-level view of what’s going on until the final confrontation, where Nohar puts everything together in a few pages of really late (and sort of convoluted) exposition. Still, it makes sense once things are figured out, and once it was all laid out I figured out the final twist perhaps a page or two ahead of the protagonist. The twists could stand to be a little more clearly sketched so it’s easier to know which direction Nohar has just been turned, but it’s also clear that Swann has a clear idea of what’s happening and it’s easy to trust in him to tie everything together. And to his credit, he does.

Ultimately this is a great little pot-boiler of a novel; nothing deep or thoughtful, but the action moves along at a rapid pace, the characters are intriguing enough to be taken along for the ride, and the world is fascinating enough that you’ll want to spend some time there. Forests of the Night is the first book in a trilogy featuring various characters in mid 21st-century America, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into the setting with the follow-up, Emperors of the Twilight. Nohar is a minor character there, alas, but it’ll be good to see how he’s doing.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Furries, Novels, Reviews


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