Gabbing Geek snared a great interview with author Mike Carey for his novel The Girl With All The Gifts a while back. If you haven’t read it, you probably should. Carey’s a great writer in the world of horror and dark fantasy, and if you haven’t read Girl or his great Vertigo series Lucifer, then you’re probably missing out on something.
He also has this dark, fun urban fantasy/horror series about a London-based exorcist named Felix “Fix” Castor. Review with possible SPOILERS for the fourth book in said series, Thicker Than Water, after the cut.
First, a bit of background for Fix and his world.
Fix lives in London. He makes his living as an exorcist, and unlike a lot of urban fantasy heroes, his world isn’t a secret. Ghosts, zombies, and werewolves are all fairly commonplace in the world, so people like Fix are needed to remove these things. All the various creatures listed are just dead people not giving up. Ghosts? That one’s obvious. Zombies? Ghost inhabits a corpse. Not always his or her own. Werewolves? One of the more clever twists of Carey’s setting is there. Werewolves, also known as loup-garou, are ghosts inhabiting the bodies of animals and forcing them into a more human shape. Sometimes they can’t hold the shape and show more animalistic features, like around the full moon. They don’t have to be wolves.
Carey’s got a reoccurring villain in these books that may be the craziest example of a werewolf I’ve ever seen, and that one alone may be worth the price of admission. If Ryan had scored the above interview on all of Carey’s work instead of just The Girl With All The Gifts, asking him his thoughts on body horror would have been interesting.
There’s also demons. Demons are very powerful and appear to line up with whatever the Bible says they are. Thicker Than Water actually adds to the cosmology as a way of explaining what demons are in a way that is consistent with the rest of the series, and I will say no more than that.
As for Fix, the protagonist, he has a gift of sorts. Exorcists are born, not made, and he can see or sense the dead better than other people. They can sense him too, so that may work against him. When he was small, he had his first encounter with a ghost, namely a younger sister who was killed in a car crash and wouldn’t leave him alone. He didn’t know it at the time, but he could banish ghosts with music. As an adult, his favored means of doing so is a tin whistle. All exorcists have their own methods; Fix’s just happens to be music. He sang a silly nursery rhyme as a child and sent his sister away for good. He doesn’t know what happens to ghosts after he exorcises them and feels guilty he may have destroyed his sister completely.
For a supporting cast, Fix’s best friend Rafe shares his soul with a really nasty demon named Asmodeus. Fix has been trying to fix his friend ever since because that’s partially his fault. His other best friend, Pen, is his landlady and Rafe’s girlfriend. He has a zombie computer hacker feeding him information, and an incredibly deadly succubus named Juliet as an occasional partner. He’s smitten with her, but it wouldn’t work out for a number of reasons, and the smittening might be a side effect of her being what she is.
OK, that should do it for the backstory.
By this point, Fix’s adventures are moving along. What I hadn’t noticed is that for all we know about Fix and his larger (much larger than mentioned above) supporting cast and various antagonists is that we really don’t know much about his childhood aside from the Katie incident. Thicker Than Water aims to fill in those gaps. Fix, it turns out, has a family. They’ve rarely been mentioned if at all (truth be told, there are huge gaps in time for me between novels so if his family has been mentioned at all it wasn’t overly prominent).
That is not overly surprising. Many urban fantasy heroes seem to be orphans, or at least only children. Harry Dresden was an orphan who only discovered he’d known his grandfather for years after a long period of time, and had a similar experience with a half-brother, just as an example. The only character in a similar series I can think of with family is Repairman Jack, and his family only seems to show up to die. So, Fix lacking that familial connection instead of the usual collection of eccentric friends wasn’t something I put much thought into.
This novel, however, cuts to the core of Fix’s childhood, particularly his broken family. The death of his sister brought ruin to the family unit. His parents divorced and his father eventually died. His mother bounced around a string or relationships. His brother left home and became a Catholic priest. Fix is even brought into this when his childhood bully appears to have written his name in blood after a vicious attack inside a car. Fix, naturally, is a suspect. The case takes him down to a poor London housing district that reminds him of the poor neighborhood in Liverpool he grew up in. Likewise, he remembers the kids he grew up with.
I generally like, but don’t love, Carey’s work in this series. Much of what he does seems almost excessive in description, which can really slow down the pace of the story at times. That more than anything else may be why I don’t get back to this series more often.
But that style works for this character. One of the best scenes of the book may be when Felix goes to visit his mother. Why doesn’t he call her that often? Violent disagreement? Some awful secret? Actually, none of those things. The family was just so damaged by the death of Katie Castor that they drifted apart. Felix is, at worst, a negligent son. Plus, the relationship seems to go both ways. Felix and his mom get along fine for that one chapter, but it’s also clear the two drifted apart a long time ago, as did the rest of the family. Neither seems to be too close to Fix’s brother Matt the priest either, though his mom holds Matt in higher esteem than Felix due to their respective chosen professions.
The ultimate point is Felix Castor isn’t the sort of character who will provide a thrill-ride adventure, but as a more cerebral style of modern urban horror fantasy, the series works. Felix takes his time to get to the bottom of things. And this novel does end with the cliffhanger that readers had to know was coming. As far as I know, Carey hasn’t written a sixth book in this series, and if he does end it with the next one, that would be a fine place to conclude the series as a whole.
Due to the slow pace, I’m giving this one seven-and-a-half cutter demons out of 10. This one felt a little less imaginative, though there was a good mystery at the center that worked out fairly well. There are urban horror fantasy series I like better than Castor’s, but the setting is usually imaginative enough to hold my interest.