Desdaemona by Ben Macallan
Desdaemona by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley, this time suggesting an affinity with single malts) (Solaris, 2011) sees us kick off a new series with a new name as author (up to this point, Benedict Macallan has merely been a character in two Brenchley novels, Dead of Light and Light Errant following Edmund Cooper’s example of Richard Avery, i.e. turning a fictional character into an author). Uncharacteristically for what’s billed as urban fantasy, Chaz has bravely chosen to hide behind a male name. This runs contrary to the norm with most urban fantasy written by women for women. There was a time, of course, when Chaz was not afraid to use a female pseudonym (not moving too far over to the female side, it’s only once, not time and again). Fortunately, he recovers self-possession in titling the book with a female name and adorning the cover with her lithe figure — the marketing department would throw in the towel if it could not commission another sexy picture of a woman in black — only to completely lose the plot with a first-person narrative from Jordan, a seventeen-year-old boy (although quite how many years he’s been seventeen is not immediately clear). Has no-one whispered in Chaz’s shell-like that urban fantasy is all about female heroines hacking supernatural nasties to pieces when not agonising about their weight or fussing over a hangnail. It seems nothing is sacred when it comes to this book. It even includes sex with a demon! Although it’s all described in the best possible taste, this is not the urban fantasy we’ve been trained to expect with a virginal young woman waiting for just the right hunk to drop down on one knee and pop the question, “Do you want that roasted or fried?” referring to the dead nasty at her feet, of course.
As an aside, I admit to living in a bubble almost completely insulated from the outside world save by what I read in books. To learn of Dusty Springfield’s death therefore came as a shock. It seems only yesterday she was performing with the Pet Shop Boys — like Jordan, yet more males who will be forever young boys when in the presence of animals. Anyway, back to the book which is told in a fun way. Not outright humour, you understand. There are some laws carved in stone and “Thou shalt not crack jokes in urban fantasy” is up there with Google’s “Don’t be evil!” Yet you can see Chaz edging that way. “I can hear sirens,” says one. “I knew a siren once. She was a bitch. . . Oh, you mean the police are coming.” It’s not going to bring the house down although, if you asked her nicely, Desi would probably do that for you, but it’s symptomatic of a general wish to entertain the reader while describing various escalating levels of conflict. Or perhaps it was an undine. . . sorry, still thinking about sirens.
Desdaemona is not unlike a computer game with different levels of threat to contend with. Jordan and Desi are on a quest to find her missing sister. They start off by rescuing a young man who’s been asked to do lunch with a coven of vampires. This has nothing to do with finding the sister but, hey, the seaside town where they met is now a safer place save for the members of the Masonic Lodge, local councillors, bent police officers and other assorted people to avoid meeting in a dark alley. Then we do spend a few pages looking for the sister in London and find the trees are alive with the sound of music — the tree was a trap, OK! Then it’s off to Richmond where the news of Dusty’s untimely death was unceremoniously broken to me. After an exchange of view with a naiad about the problems of climate change as they affect water levels in the river, it’s back to London where things get a little rocky for a while before our lustful couple find neutral ground on which to recuperate. Once they leave this sanctuary, events take an increasingly perilous course leading to a conclusion that neither Jordan nor Desi desired (rather neat meta-alliteration at work). To that extent, the book has a pleasing edge. Too often, everything in urban fantasy turns out rosy as virginal status may be surrendered in the hormone-enhanced aftermath of assorted nasty-slaying.
This is a nicely designed puzzle book at two different levels. The first is the more obvious quest to find the missing sister before Hell’s mobsters lay their claws on her. It seems she’s literally just dropped off the face of the Earth although, at one point, it’s punily suggested she might have been turned into stone — yes, there are gorgons about. The second is to discover exactly who Jordan is and why he’s on the run. To that extent, it’s all about family and the problems teens have with their parents and each other if abstinence is not on the agenda. While admitting a predisposition to like books by Chaz Brenchley, I confirm this as a superior fantasy with a supernatural cast of hellions trying to deal with their teenage angst while fighting off increasingly dangerous supernatural threats (including the Morris Men trying to wipe them down with their handkerchiefs and whack them with their sticks). It’s great fun and you should not be put off by the urban fantasy label or the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong. Anyone, i.e. both male and female, who enjoys supernatural fantasy, particularly when told with knowing smile, should pick up Desdaemona and probably order the forthcoming Pandaemonium which threatens to be more of the same or even better.