Many authors have a regular style of writing, and sometimes a reputation for something in their novels that may turn off (or turn on) certain types of readers. Jacqueline Carey is best known for the Kushiel series of books (Kushiel’s Dart, etc), which I haven't had the pleasure of reading yet. They have a reputation for being sexually-charged, gritty novels with sado-masochistic themes and explicit sex. The last thing I expected to see from Carey is her latest book, Dark Currents, an urban fantasy that not only moves away from the sex (at least slightly) but is also something I never thought I would hear about a Carey book: funny. It's a great change-of-pace novel, and one I really enjoyed.
The Michigan resort town of Pemkowet is a strange place, full of eldritch beings that live side-by-side with normal ("mundane") people: ghouls, werewolves, fairies, nymphs, even vampires. It's also the hometown to an agent of the Norse goddess Hel, Daisy Johanssen. Daisy's father is a demon, so she's already a half-breed. She even has a tail. Working for the local police force as a clerk, she also takes on tasks for Hel that have to do with the supernatural community. When a young college student drowns in the river, signs point to more than just a drowning, and the local police chief asks Daisy to help with the investigation. What was the boy doing on that fateful night? Will Daisy and friends be able to solve the crime before the resort town is shut down by normal humans who are getting tired of co-existing with the supernatural?
Carey is obviously kicking of an urban fantasy series starring Daisy Johanssen. You can tell if a book is in the genre from the covers and set-up: a young woman with some kind of supernatural ability dealing with all of the other weirdness in town, as well as potential romantic issues with at least two other supernatural guys who also help her out. Inevitably, each cover features the good-looking female protagonist featured alone, staring out at the reader from the bookshelf, tempting browsers to pick them up.
Dark Currents follows much the same line, though thankfully Carey avoids the cliché of having a vampire be one of the romantic interests. It's not a surprise that Carey would move into this genre given its current popularity. What is surprising is that she would do so and turn a couple of its conventions on their heads, writing a very good novel using the standard tropes. I don't really like the genre, though I do like some of the series within it. I can see myself following Daisy's story easily.
From the opening page, Carey defied almost everything that I thought I knew about her. I'm wondering what her fans who have read her other books think of this. The jokes start almost from the first paragraph and continue throughout the novel. The subject matter is quite serious, of course, but the tone of the book is that mixture of light and dark that characterizes the genre. The book is told in first-person, and Daisy is a breezy narrator unafraid to mock herself or her perceptions of what’s going on.
She's teamed with her childhood crush, a werewolf cop (the werewolf part is a secret, though the police chief does know and accounts for it) named Cody Fairfax. The sexual tension between the two is pretty blatant, even when both know that it could never work between them. The byplay between these two characters, as well as all of the other characters in Dark Currents, is delicious. Carey has a way with funny dialogue that I never would have expected.
The world-building is solid, though I understand that's also one of her strengths from her other series. The interplay between the mundane and eldritch communities includes a society of ghouls that feed off of the strong emotions of humans, fairies that inhabit the river that flows next to town, and so much else. It's inventive and a joy to read.
Only a couple of small things bring down what otherwise is a great opening entry into the series. Most can probably be attributed to Carey trying to create the world she's writing in. Some spots in the book slow down to a crawl with sequences that have little to nothing to do with the plot of the book itself. They're not even really character development, but instead illustrate how Carey's world works. That's not bad in itself, but in this book, they do get a bit annoying. They may pay off in future novels, or they may just be background. If an author is going to incorporate that, at least make it interesting. Carey doesn't succeed in that here.
Overall, Dark Currents is a wonderful novel, playful and fun though with dark themes. Carey keeps the tone balanced and believable, allowing readers to laugh at one point and be horrified by the truth at another. If this is an example of how Carey's new series is going to go, consider me along for the ride.