Review: DEAD ACRE
by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle
The gold standard in American urban fantasy is, naturally, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. A series so successful and well-loved that it brought this niche genre into the mainstream and onto the bestseller lists, leaving readers hungry for more.
Many have imitated, but few have duplicated. Obviously Charlaine Harris has had tremendous success with her Sookie Stackhouse novels, and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series is a reliable home run machine. Other than that, you’re basically left with generic pseudo-noir set in New York and LA, or bodice-rippers disguised as paranormal thrillers.
But a new challenger has entered the fray in the form of James Crowley, protagonist of the new Black Badge series. While not an urban fantasy in the chronological sense (it’s not contemporary, it’s not set in a large modern city, and it’s not about a protagonist who’s navigating the same mundane challenges as the reader), it feels like an urban fantasy. It just takes place about a hundred and fifty years before our time.
Really, it’s a paranormal western, but it’s got all of the familiar elements that offer a promising start: a fascinating protagonist, a world ripe for exploration, and a larger backstory that can unfold against the backdrop of individual mysteries.
So far, so good.
Crowley is a slightly amnesiac man who remembers that he was once a frontier ruffian, and that he died saving a widow and her young daughter…but nothing else. As both penance for his sins and a reward for his noble death, the angels of heaven give him a job on Earth, hunting down evil creatures in the name of the White Throne. He can’t really die, since he’s already dead, and the only things that can truly hurt him are fire and silver. Food and women offer his flesh no pleasure, and he must answer the call of the spirit that sends him on various missions.
The mystery of DEAD ACRE centers on the death of a small town citizen who appears to have been butchered by werewolves. Crowley is guided by spiritual impulses to seek out Dead Acre and solve their problem. Naturally there’s a plot twist, and a very good one at that, as it both resolves the mystery in a surprising fashion while providing the reader with more of Crowley’s backstory.
Crowley is a protagonist you can cheer for, because he’s got all of the powerful traits of an outlaw while still having the moral core of a good man. He made plenty of mistakes and committed plenty of sins in his mortal life, but he died to save someone else from a terrible fate. The years of crime give him a familiarity with evil while the moral core makes him the right man to hunt that evil.
While the cast of supporting characters could easily be a bunch of NPCs from Red Dead Redemption, they aren’t without soul or personality. The authors use a good mix of western tropes and unique characteristics to round out this cast.
I’ve got a soft spot for a good western. It’s my understanding that die-hard fans of the genre are huge sticklers for minor details, most of which I am unfamiliar with, so I won’t nitpick anything. Suffice it to say that it feels like Bruno and Castle built a realistic setting for these books, based on the Leonard and L’Amour titles I’ve consumed over the years.
None, at least so far. This takes place in the wild west. You’ve got to have law before you can have politics about it. More to the point, I couldn’t tell you about Bruno and Castle and their politics. The book was just a book, and a good one.
Profanity up to and including “shit,” but nothing more severe than that. Some combat violence, and references to brothels. (It does get a little more intense than that in COLD AS HELL, though. Review forthcoming.)
Why read it?
I’m looking forward to this series because it feels fresh and familiar at the same time, with a “magic system” that’s based more on angels and demons than the jiggery-pokery of wizards that we’ve seen time and time again. If you’re looking for a fresh scratch to an old itch—especially while you’re waiting for Jim Butcher to get the next Dresden book out—grab a copy of DEAD ACRE and give it a shot.