I hate coming into series two or five or ten books in, which is why you see me work through so many from the beginning. Yes, I will get to Seanan McGuire's new InCryptid novel but I'm going to read the first four in the series first! That way, I can experience the books as the writer intended and learn about the characters from the moment they were introduced.
One exception that didn't cause me a problem was 'The Devil's Only Friend,' (Click here for review)the fourth book in the John Wayne Cleaver series by Dan Wells. Partly because I didn't realise it was the fourth book in a series as I read it and partly because it simply didn't matter. Wells introduces his characters as if they were brand-new without letting the exposition take over from the story.
It turns out that it was also the first book in a new trilogy, to follow on from the events of 'I am Not a Serial Killer,' 'Mr Monster' and 'I Don't Want to Kill You' but to start a new arc in the process. In between is a novella, 'Next of Kin.' This book, 'Over Your Dead Body,' follows on from 'The Devil's Only Friend' and I'm interested to see how the as yet untitled sixth book in the series (and third in the second trilogy) unfolds because this is as easy to read as a standalone as its predecessor.
So let's back up for a moment. John Wayne Cleaver is not a serial killer but he wants to be. And yet he's our hero. He's found a creative outlet for his sociopathic talents in the Withered, a sort of race of ancient demons whose deaths at his hand are a little more palatable to the reader than a brace of regular joes. However, he's also only seventeen years old, which made it difficult for him to work well alongside the FBI team to which he was seconded in the previous book.
Well, spoiler alert, but while that book was a neat cross between 'Criminal Minds' and 'Supernatural,' his entire team is massacred during the finalé so this follow-up has a completely different tone. Is Dan Wells using Cleaver as the primary tool in a literary experiment to build a series out of deliberately different subgenres? I have no idea, but it's certainly interesting to read.
The only survivors from the events of 'The Devil's Only Friend' are Cleaver himself and his friend, Brooke Watson, who is the unwilling host to Nobody, a Withered who takes on the memories of everyone that it killed. Given that it has been killing for thousands of years, that burdens her with so many multiple personalities that Cleaver is constantly having to figure out which one he's actually talking to at any given moment. And this unusual pair zip on out of there before they're asked to explain what went on, to authorities.
So, instead of a supernatural police procedural, we get a road movie. John and Brooke hit the road and hitch through the Midwest seeking Withered just as Withered may be seeking them. The first seems almost ridiculously easy to kill, compared to the lengths to which Cleaver, the expert on killing, has had to go in the past, but then they target Attina, last seen in a small Oklahoma town called Dillon.
What makes the Withered so interesting is that they're all different, having given up something of themselves in return for a greater power that isn't necessarily obvious. They may be gods, demons or supernatural monsters, but they're almost like a different species each, defined by what they gave up and what they gained because of it.
I won't spoil what Attina gave up or what was gained, because you deserve to discover that as John Cleaver does, or maybe a little earlier if you happen to be incredibly sharp. What I will say, is that it takes him a long time to figure it out and that means that a lot of trouble stirs up in Dillon until he does. This flavours the book more than anything else, turning this road movie into a sort of midwestern gothic, this sleepy small town in which no bad things ever happen opening all its closets to expose all its skeletons.
It's a great approach for a John Wayne Cleaver novel because a good deal of the magic is how Dan Wells can make a sociopathic serial killer sympathetic to his readers. That was an achievement in 'The Devil's Only Friend,' when he was surrounded by FBI agents and freaky Withered, but it's astounding in 'Over Your Dead Body' because everyone else in the story is really nice, to use a deliberately banal description. We can't look at Cleaver and believe him sympathetic only in comparison to this guy, that guy or that one over there. With everyone so apparently decent, or at least endearingly bad at being bad, he's clearly the worst person in our story. That he's still the hero tells me that Dan Wells really knows what he's doing.
Some readers may find it off-putting that this series feels as schizophrenic as Brooke Watson, who doesn't just transition through characters Cleaver has never met but finally starts to manifest the one that he does: Marci, his old girlfriend, murdered by Nobody and stuck inside his suffering friend. In fact, some critics highlighted how the very first book in the series, 'I am Not a Serial Killer,' changed genre halfway through and suggested that folk who might find that a problem might want to avoid it.
I adore the idea. I grew up reading Brian Lumley, who ended three series of books, each written in a different genre, with the same final volume, and I appreciated his talents because of that. I like that book four is a police procedural with supernatural creatures and book five is a road movie turned American gothic. It makes me want to go back and experience the adult YA of the first book (it was marketed as YA horror in the UK, but a thriller for adults in Germany) and whatever other genres the second and third play in.
I'm also eager to discover what book six will be and how it's going to gel as the last in a trilogy with two books that feel so utterly different. ~~ Hal C F Astell