As a fun and intriguing close-out to my 2021 and opening to my 2022, I read Bloodlines: An Empire City Special Crimes Novel (The Guardian of Empire City, book one), by Peter Hartog. Hartog is another author I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of through the SPSFC, although I am not technically judging Bloodlines at this point it is in the contest, it seems, so if it makes it through to the next round I will be a book ahead of the game, and if it doesn’t make it then what the fuck, I did a review of it anyway because he put the e-books on sale and I one-click purchased. No guts, no glory.
Anyway here is my usual intro to the whole SPSFC thing and an explanation of my judging style, in the form of a practice review, and here is my actual review!
The year is two thousand tickity twelve, okay I don’t know for certain what year it is but there are sci-fi-ey transit pods and Gen Xers are still pulling a paycheque, so sometime around that era. Nuclear war has bombed the Earth halfway into the next genre in this thriller mystery where the coffee-slinging and grizzled detective with the haunted past and the strange gifts has to solve a ghastly murder and blow the lid off a shadow conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Or, you know, all the way somewhere pretty high. I won’t spoil it. Also there’s another dimension where magic creatures come from so it might go all the way to the top over there. Have to read more to find out.
Bloodlines has a beyond-ambitious sub-genre mashup checklist that reads like Meredith Brooks lyrics. It’s a noir. It’s a Bladerunner. It’s a grizzled lone wolf cop buddy journey. It’s an urban fantasy. It’s a sci-fi neovampire horror. It’s a corporate espiothriller. It’s a Prophesied Reborn Chosen One Battle Through The Ages backflip with surreal pike. And since the main character is nicknamed Doc Holliday, it’s also slightly a Western somehow. It was so much.
Still, with such an ambitious and crowded framework, the story itself keeps rolling along and the action and assorted character-driven scenes work nicely. You can tell when an author has just made up a dumb world and gone “yeah, it’s like this movie and this movie and this book and this comic, all mixed together,” and then tried to make a story in it. And you can tell when an author knows the world and is just showing you a bit of it. Hartog’s that second one.
The pages turn good and easy. A murder mystery stretched over worldbuilding of this scale is a joy to read, pure and simple. As I’ve said before, I’m the sort of reader who would just happily meander through five hundred pages of normal detective procedural through the streets of Fae York (not the city’s real name but it should have been) without needing any sort of plot to keep him entertained, so the plot here was just gravy.
Yeah. Good action, distinctive characters, great scenery and interaction. I could see the city. The dialogue was a bit cheesy but that cheese felt more like Hartog was leaning into the cop drama trope and quite intentionally giving Holliday and his equally grizzled former beat-Paladin Deacon a very distinct and familiar set of gruff, no-bullshit conversational cues. It was a little difficult to trace where exactly their relationship stood at any given time because, although they did come to trust and even like each other more and more in true buddy cop style through the story, each scene had to be taken separately and they could be exchanging quips or snarling at each other like junkyard dogs depending on how grumpy Deacon was or when Holliday had last had a coffee. Again, this felt intentional more than accidental, and if it was jarring or grating occasionally I feel it’s no more than a reader deserves when they know the sort of story they’ve picked up. Oh, they were almost friends in the last scene and now they’re at each other’s throats again? What’re you gonna do? Cry? You gonna cry?
So as I was saying, Holliday was very old school noir detective, if you like that sort of thing. He didn’t quite narrate to us that he knew the Vellan in the makeup was bad news the second she walked in, but he could have said it and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
As to the plot itself … well, I’ll just go back to my default it was so much. The twists and turns were dizzying, but from scene to scene and revelation to revelation it all sort of hangs together. The whole thing becomes almost impossibly complex as the world Hartog has created weaves itself into the case and vice versa, making it convoluted beyond belief, but then he pulls a thread and it unfolds into a remarkably simple outcome. Just ride it through to the end, is my advice. It is a noir detective whodunnit in the end, but getting there is a fucking journey.
Holliday and Besim almost have a thing at some point there but it may just be an over-interpretation of the careful tabs Holliday keeps on her hair and makeup and overall looks. To be fair, her whole deal is sort of extraordinary and that, too, is justified by the end. All in all, our characters have more important things to worry about than getting nasty, which is fine – there’s no obligation or requirement as far as I’m concerned. Not in a gritty-dystopian-cyber-noir-fae-futurist-murder-mystery. By the time you’ve said the name of the sub-genre, it’s time for a cigarette. Bloodlines gets a Twilight series out of a possible Fifty Shades of Grey series on the sex-o-meter.
Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five here. There’s a certain amount of violence, some excellent hand-to-hand fights and shoot-outs, and of course the grisly murder that starts it all off and the additional murders that keep it rolling along. They’re not super gory or upsetting, but we do also have some really nice and visceral surrealist second-layer body horror and stuff going on with Holliday’s Insight that I feel elevates the story from a mob drama procedural with exsanguination to something a bit more special.
Since I’ve already rhapsodised about the sub-genre and worldbuilding extensively here, and mentioned some of the more surreal elements of character and plot, I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that this book scores quite admirably on the WTF-o-meter. I’m looking at the dial and seeing that it’s clocked in at somewhere in the region of a hard-boiled flatfoot out of a possible delicately-sautéed Proudfoot. But that’s still somehow a quite high rating. Go figure.
My Final Verdict
I had a lot of fun reading this even though it took me a surprisingly long time. There was, and I say it again, just so much. And that can be hard work to get through. Detective pulp, easy. Urban fantasy cheese, no problem. Dystopian cyberpunk schlock, give me a challenge next time. Putting it all together gave my eyeballs indigestion. Four stars, for the sheer balls of it. A star for each ball. Bloodlines has disturbingly crowded pants and sits funny on barstools. Don’t stare, it’s rude.