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The Night Dahlia
by R. S. Belcher
Tor, $18.99, 368pp
Published: April 2018

It feels odd to realise that I reviewed R. S. Belcher's 'Nightwise' as far back as September 2015. It doesn't feel remotely that long, even though I reviewed a mostly unrelated book by him in between that and this, which is the second to feature Laytham Ballard, broken but powerful Wisdom, in the lead role. I adored 'Nightwise', an original and impressive novel which spoke to me in ways that urban fantasy doesn't tend to do. I can't say that about this sequel, unfortunately, as it exhibits a few flaws I don't recall from its predecessor, but I did enjoy it very much, enough so that it reminded me that I haven't read Belcher's 'Golgotha' series yet. Three thoroughly enjoyable books out of three means that I need to fix that situation starting next month.

The first thing to point out about the 'Nightwise' series, both the novel of that name and 'The Night Dahlia', is that it's dark stuff indeed. That first book saw Laytham Ballard wander through a slew of subcultures, each of them firmly on the dark side and some way out beyond where you think the dark side is. Ballard, however, is comfortable in each of them, making him, in many ways, an occult version of the hardboiled detective, a good man living in a bad world while earning his however-many-dollars a day plus expenses. Belcher writes him so far into anti-hero territory, though, that readers many will have trouble sympathising with him, but he's better than he thinks he is and there are some solid demonstrations of that this time out.

'The Night Dahlia' is more overtly tied to a case than its predecessor was but, as you might expect, it's hardly a fluffy case; Ballard is very specifically hired because, as Theodore Ankou explains, 'Just your name has cachet in some very, very dark places, places my people cannot go.' Ankou is the patriarch of the Ankou fae clan, who is very rich, very connected and very ruthless. He needs Ballard to find his daughter, who has been missing for years and whose trail is completely cold. Her name is Caern, she was thirteen when she vanished in 2009 and she's betrothed to another important fae lord in an arranged marriage.

Lord Ankou is very serious about finding Caern. Ballard gets half a million dollars in walking around cash and a fourteen thousand dollar smartphone with better than military encryption. However, Ankou requires that Burris, a fae bodyguard, accompany Ballard wherever the case takes him. That doesn't make our anti-hero happy and he spends a lot of effort skipping out on Burris to investigate alone. He has some pretty good reasons too. He may be comfortable walking through the subcultures that will inevitably become necessary but Burris isn't and he'll often be a detriment to the investigation.

Belcher is surely the poster-child for authors whose research prompts really weird search histories. One minute Ballard is using an occult Cambodian street gang to ditch his unwelcome companion, the next he's guesting on stage with a pop punk band and, before long, he'll be literally dealing with deities. I had a blast with these wild shifts, but I do have to suggest that it felt like Belcher was trying a bit harder to stay weird with this book than with the last one. In 'Nightwise', the inevitable underground sex club felt dangerous and truly outré; in this one, it felt just like another underground sex club, regardless what species of creature happened to be performing on stage at the time. Some subcultures work better than others, such as the porn scene in LA, which here goes all the way to 'grotto', namely sex between genuine supernatural beings.

Belcher is a journalist by trade, so it's perhaps not too surprising that he's notably interested in the weirdness behind our supposedly normal lives. It's not too surprising either that he has a real turn of phrase too; he's responsible for many of the very best opening lines in modern fiction, not only to books but to chapters. He kicks this one into motion with, 'I watched the playground on the other side of the high, chain-link fence, trying to figure out which of the elementary school children had the gun.' That's a fantastic opener, but he doesn't quit. The seventh chapter begins with, 'LAX was a madhouse on greased wheels, and one of the wheels wobbled the wrong way, like a bad shopping cart.' He likes talking about the city of angels. 'L.A. was a champagne call girl with a razor blade hidden between her knuckles' is just one more example.

It isn't just full lines that raise a smile, it's often simple wordplay, which seems ramped up from the prior book. Belcher's stories of the Nightwise are urban fantasy but they're contemporary in technology as much as era. It's the roles that he conjures up on the boundary of magic and tech that highlight how different his writing is from the norms of the genre. Some of the terms sound cheesy, like 'twittermancer' for someone who works his magic through cellphones, even though they fit perfectly. Others are neatly imaginative, like the five 'bloodhisattvas', 'enlightened beings who had mastered all forms of death, literal demigods of murder'. It's worth mentioning too that the magical elements of the story are recounted in all sorts of different languages, which seems appropriate at every single point.

One of the flipsides of being a journalist that manifested here was Belcher's constant need to document scenes by telling us what music is playing as they unfold. I know authors often conjure up soundtracks to accompany the writing of their books and it seems like Belcher has an admirably broad taste in music, but it could all have been confined to a single page after the story is over, like Seanan McGuire has a tendency of doing. Detailing it throughout only served to annoy me and it also detracted a little here from the biggest plus point that Belcher's books have, namely that they're immersions into a wild and dangerous world that exists right alongside ours, if only we look down into the gutter. I happen to like where his stories take us, but I like the journeys even more.

I'm looking forward to a third Laytham Ballard novel, though I realise it'll be a few years before I'll see one. In the meantime, I'll be taking a long overdue look at Belcher's Golgotha series, which currently numbers three books: 'The Six-Gun Tarot', 'The Shotgun Arcana' and 'The Queen of Swords'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other titles in this series click here
For other titles by R.S. Belcher click here

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