Daniel José Older
January 6 2015
Full disclosure: I am enthusiastic about the things I like. Being a fangirl is part of the reason why I love this WWAC gig. I went straight-smooth-serious into fanning hard for this book: I looked for the TV Tropes page; there was none yet, so I created it. I did fan art. I am only passingly acquainted with Daniel José Older on Twitter. I took issue with the idea that comparing Daniel José Older with Cassandra Clare is supposed to be a compliment to him. There is nothing derivative about this debut novel.
That said, this book, the first in the Bone Street Rumba series, flows like lyrical poetry. There’s a subtle sub-soundtrack that resonates with the reader through the words; it’s in phrases like “you can almost taste the bursting molecules in the air.” For all that, it’s really hard to review the book because for the review I want to try to be detached and analytical, but the story keeps drawing me in, like someone convincing my wallflower self to get out on the floor and dance to a beautiful song I can’t help but move to. So, I’m reviewing it from where it reaches me.
Any native New Yorker is going to have a similar reaction, particularly if they know Brooklyn. It comes alive under Older’s narrative in a way that’s difficult to describe. Just saying “it’s diverse” does a disservice to the vibrant life happening around the protagonist Carlos, with people of all ages, races, and lifestyles. And not just the people, but everything around them: what they eat, what they drink, what they smoke—they are written in such rich detail that I got a little homesick for New York foods I can’t get here in Georgia. Older doesn’t spoon feed his readers, nor does he other his characterizations. When someone begins speaking Spanish, he expects you to know it from your own experience, or to Google that shit, understand it, and keep it moving. The book pulls no punches either: Carlos calls it like he sees it with regard to the varying ethnicities in his world and what gentrification is doing to his stomping grounds.
The book sort of hip-bumps other genres. I’ve heard it described as noir, urban fantasy, and I’ve heard people invent genre names, because Half Resurrection Blues has elements of them all, but combines them in a way that is fresh. The Council of the Dead is a bureaucracy that deals with the dead and the living only inasmuch as they have to prevent the dead from affecting them. The ghosts being fully intelligent and affected by the methods of their deaths is not completely new, but it seems new under Older’s deft stylistic touch. The ngk, a freaky little ghoul and harbinger of disaster, which chuckles hideous laughter to itself while it rides a stationary bike, produces a mental image I have never had anywhere else.
Carlos is a man of crossed events. He’s half-dead, half-alive. How’s that work? You’ll have to read and see. He’s shrewd and clever, despite being amnesiac up until just before the events of the book. He’s a badass, but with hints of hopeless romantic and stumbling troubadour.
The way Older writes is emotional, which resonates strongly with a reader like me. There are moments where Carlos is in pain, and he describes them with such intensity that the scene plays out before the mind’s eye. Where his heart is leading him softens the edges off the hard parts of the story. His rage is the reader’s rage. More than once I found myself clenching my teeth at descriptions of furious Carlos. The pacing is just right: there’s action, action, action, and then just enough time for a reader to catch their breath before the story gets into gear and speeds off again. All this serves to build a story that follows Carlos as he makes his limping way (did I mention he’s disabled?) through Brooklyn from one end to the other, chasing a mystery that threatens to destroy the barrier between the living and the dead.
His world is populated with characters who are characters—even only one or two sentences and a reader will get a feel for Moishe, Mama Esther, The Brad Squad, Kia, Baba Eddie, Dro, and Riley, among many others, as people. People who matter to the story, to Carlos, and to the reader. The women in the story are women, not so much plot devices. Sasha, Kia, and Mama Esther all have their own strengths to contribute to the story, and not one of them asks or needs to be rescued by Carlos or anyone else.
For all my affection of this book, it does have a few places I’d like to see a bit more solidity: some of the points in the novel are as thin as the ghostly inhabitants of Brooklyn, and I’d like to see them a bit more opaque. Carlos has some sort of supernatural receiver in his mind as a result of his condition—something not quite telepathy, not quite psychometry, not quite oneiromancy—with a visual component and I’d like to know more about its boundaries.
Carlos describes what others look like before himself; we get to see them as he sees them without telling us much about how he looks except for his natty haberdashery. This tendency of his had me flipping back to the cover often to remind me of what Carlos is supposed to look like.
But fair being fair, this is his debut novel, and Daniel José Older has plenty of time to build on the foundation he has laid here.
If my own enthusiasm for the book isn’t enough to pique interest: Anika Noni Rose optioned TV and film rights to the series a mere two weeks after the first novel’s publication date. Not just this one novel, but the entire series of novels.
Five stars! Get yourself a nice cup of coffee, a Malagueña if you smoke ‘em, and prepare for a ride. Once you open the book, you’re going to have a hard time putting it down. Good luck sleeping after reading about the ngks.