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Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

April 19, 2014 2 comments

Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

Having read and enjoyed some of this author’s short stories, I thought it time to have a look at one of his novels. This is convenient because Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot, 2014) is the first in the new Shadow Watch series. Audra Hawthorne and her ideation Jinx are the headline pair. OK so here we go with the set-up. Out there (somewhere that’s not outer space because this is not SFnal interplanetary material), there’s the Maelstrom (not the Scandinavian whirlpool but a cache of uncontrolled energy). This can bleed through into both our world and the Land of Nod, the world of sleep and dreams. The result can be chaotic as what was ordered and predictable becomes less so. Humans can ideate, i.e. create creatures out of their dreams by drawing on the Maelstrom. If they do this, they don’t need to sleep. In turn, this messes with their heads and leads to them making mistakes unless they do the R&R thing. Anyway, Audra has dreamed up Jinx and, together, they are a team committed to keeping both worlds free from attack by other creatures formed out of Maelstrom stuff. We start off with our duo in Chicago chasing after Quietus, an assassin who’s already killed three humans. They capture him but, when they go through the door into the Land of Nod, they are mugged by a local and a mercenary, and lose their prisoner. This is embarrassing and the boss of this trans-dimensional law enforcement organisation may take this as a symptom of less than the peak efficiency expected of all his teams.

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner

On the face of it, this is a very interesting concept. Ignoring the far past, humans can interact with the energy field and create incubi out of the Maelstrom. These beings now populate the Land of Nod which has separated itself out as a dimensional home for them. However, some can pass between our world and Nod. This gives them separate daytime and nighttime bodies. Their personalities may also change on transition. Their two “halves” are not mirror images, but there’s a tendency to polarise as opposites. So the incubi are created by humans but, for the most part, are not dependent on them for continued existence. This leads to interesting quasi-religious questions about the process of creation among the incubi. However, some humans ideate specific beings and there’s a much higher degree of interdependence. As a child, Audra had a number of “unresolved issues” which led to her having an increasingly specific fear of a clown. Over time, this “clown” took on substance and became the being now called Jinx. Because he was born out of her fear, she’s never completely bonded with him. A small part of her continues to fear him. Consequently, their relationship as a law enforcement team is not as effective as it might be — I should mention that humans are teamed with incubi so they can police both inhabited dimensions.

Whether by accident or design, most books sit comfortably in an obvious genre class. But this book rather playfully blurs the line between science fiction and urban fantasy. Let’s put the question of creationism to one side and focus on the “as is”. We have two parallel dimensions, one populated predominantly by humans, the other by incubi. But there are portals or doorways which enable beings to pass from one dimension to the other (there’s a feature not unlike the Bajoran wormhole phenomenon in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connected with these doorways). Mostly due to the humans, a considerable amount of science has been devoted to researching the Maelstrom itself and the systems enabling different features to manifest. This has led to the development of real technology to exploit Maelstrom energy as weapons and otherwise to exploit the way in which incubi can manipulate dimensional space. The older incubi were initially not interested in science and so were, with one exception, marginalised. This book sees the self-proclaimed Lords of Misrule showing off the results of some of their more recent research. That said, the plot itself largely conforms to the urban fantasy model. Young girl with supernatural clown buddy have the job of keeping the city of Chicago safe from incubi (that’s demons if you want it in more obvious fantasy terms). They face a number of threats, are thought less than effective, and are replaced by more senior operatives. This leads to our duo teaming up with a young man and his pet dog to take on all-comers. There’s the whiff of romance in the air, and lots of fighting with none of the “good guys” seriously threatened. Indeed, one of the problems with this plot is the ease with which the incubi repair their bodies and avoid what should be certain death. It leads to a certain lack of suspense as they get into trouble and escape with only a scratch that’s healing rapidly as they walk away. Even though a human, Audra is feisty and also manages not to be too serious injured — it’s a gift most heroines enjoy in a series where romance is in the air.

Put all this together and you have a very professional package based on an interesting idea. Anyone who wants to see a slightly different version of urban fantasy will find this highly readable. For them as likes this type of book, Night Terrors is a very good buy.

For a review of another book by Tim Waggoner, see The Last Mile.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo

Night terrors

Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi and, as with Fever Dream, our forensic psychologist with the hero complex has yet again survived to the end of a book. Back in 2003, there was an appropriately titled film called the Bulletproof Monk. Once you realised the hero had supernatural powers, all the silliness of his invincibility faded into the background. When something is explicitly a fantasy, you willingly suspend disbelief. But this book pushes the envelope of credibility as our hero is variously assaulted, rear-ended into a ditch, and shot at on several different occasions. To say he’s leading a charmed life is an understatement. Yet, if you’re prepared to look beyond this blurring of reality, what we have here is an above-average mystery puzzle for our sleuth to solve. After all, to write a series, the author is always obliged to keep the hero alive (or else pivot into a supernatural book in which his ghost continues investigate crimes in the mortal coil — observing what people say and do is not a problem, but telling the police whodunnit is a challenge unless they take instant messages by ouija board).

So where to start? Well there’s no better place than the first introductory scenes which represent one of the best starts to a mystery that I’ve read in quite some time. Boiling it down to its essentials, the narrative structure of this series is for there to be two “crimes” for our hero to investigate. In the last book, we had him consulting over a bank robbery while worrying about why someone committed suicide. This time he gets called out by a country sheriff who has a confessed killer in custody. The “accused” says he’ll take them to where the body is hidden but only if the increasingly high-profile Rinaldi is there to keep him safe from harm (both internally generated and externally applied by the local police). Very reluctantly, he gets into his car and navigates the icy conditions into the night. What they find when they finally reach the house in the woods is wonderfully atmospheric with a delightful twist borrowed from the horror genre. The only problem with such a strong opening is that, by contrast, the pace of the next section of the book feels so slow. Fortunately, the FBI then invite our hero to consult on one of their cases.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Before his retirement from the Bureau, an old FBI profiler had tracked down a serial killer who died while in prison. As a direct result of this death, he may now be on a hit list. Under normal circumstances, he would support the investigation through his expertise but not only has he retired, his mind is also worn down through his inability to sleep properly. He suffers from night terror. Because the FBI agent in charge considers both Rinaldi and his new patient outside the magic circle, neither are given access to the case files relevant to the threat. Needless to say, this excessive following of the book and rigid thinking is not going to solve the case. The real catalyst for action therefore comes when the sleep-deprived old guy decides to exit the hotel where the FBI has him in protective custody. This was not at all what the FBI operatives were expecting and it leads to Rinaldi going out into the field with one of the local detectives to interview a witness who may be able to identify the killer.

In the midst of this, the mother of the man who has confessed to the first somewhat gruesome murder contacts Rinaldi. She’s convinced her son is innocent and a situation is engineered forcing our hero to talk with the “killer”. But as our sleuth says to this highly respectable woman who swears her son was with her around the time of death, “If he’s innocent how did he know where to find the body and why would he confess if he was innocent?” Two very good questions, I’m sure you’ll agree. As is always the case when reaching the end of this type of book, our hero is able to say with compete certainty whether the man who confessed to the killing is innocent and who has been going around killing a prison guard, a judge, a prosecutor, and so on. The fact the key scenes of revelation take place on a factory roof at night gives the second meaning to the title.

Summing up, this is a top-class mystery with thrillerish overtones as our psychologist with an unadmitted death wish triumphs yet again. This is far better than Fever Dream so Dennis Palumbo is an author developing in technique and threatening to become one of the top mystery writers.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Phantom Limb.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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