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Ghost of a Chance

Ghost of a Chance - Simon R. Green I'm starting to think that I'm some kind of literary masochist. The last several books I've read have been downright painful, and Ghost of a Chance does nothing to break my unlucky streak.

The book starts out with the three main characters setting up shop for some ghost catching. Cue the clumsy infodump summarizing each character. There's a rapid buildup for something scary--it's terrifying and off the scales and eeeeeeevil! But their leader, stereotypically brash, oh-so-handsome and overconfident JC Chance, stays totally cool and fixes it all in a snap.

This encounter, while made to sound like a big deal, was just a warm-up. They return to home base, a supernatural fighting- and studying- organization called the Carnacki Institute, and are immediately redeployed to investigate a disturbance in the London Underground. There's a gradual buildup for something scary--it's terrifying and off the scales and eeeeeeevil! But JC, once again, stays totally cool and fixes it all in a snap in the last ten pages or so. Once they reach the Big Bad, it's over pretty quickly.

There's so much fail in this book it's hard to know where to start. Each character can pretty much be reduced to two or three character traits, and only JC gets any development (and his character development is terribly cliche and makes no sense based on what the reader already knows of him). JC Chance: knowledgeable but overconfident leader. Happy Jack Palmer: depressed, pill-popping telepath. Melody Chambers: "girl geek" (yes, actually described as such) tech support. Natasha Chang: "femme fatale" (again, actually described as such). Erik Grossman: sleazy Frankenstein. Kim Sterling: damsel in distress.

There is so much infodumping and summarizing in this book that it almost feels like author's notes rather than narrative in places. Here, for example, is the introduction to the Crowley Project:

Whereas the Carnacki Institute is concerned with gathering knowledge of the unseen world in order to protect Humanity, the Crowley Project doesn't give a damn. All they care about is amassing knowledge and power for the sake of the Project. The only investigate hauntings so they can take advantage of the situation and exploit it for their own ends. Some say they want to rule the world, and some say they already do. The Crowley Project loot and brutalise all the manifestations of the unseen world because they want to know the secrets of Life and Death. They want to rule not only this world but the afterworlds, too. They want it all.

Some of them eat ghosts, consuming their energies and absorbing their knowledge and memories. Some of them create bad places on purpose, poisoning the psychic wells of the world with awful technologies and bad intent, dripping bloody bait into the waters to attract otherworldly monsters. For the fun of it, and the sport. They create disasters and glory in destruction, and dance in the aisles of crashing planes. Just because they can. Do what thou wilt is the whole of their law. They are the main rivals of the Carnacki Institute, and so it has been for centuries. Because the Light must always be at war with the Dark, or because Good and Evil simply cannot abide each other; or maybe because every coin must have two sides. Two organizations, forever at each other's throats; two small fish in a pond that is so much bigger than either of them have ever realized.

The above passage is the narrator, not a character. It's one of the most ham-fisted, simplistic descriptions I've ever read. Nancy Drew villains were more dimensional and better described. I've never read another book by this author but I know he's published quite a few books, yet this is woefully amateur work. When your English teacher told you back in third grade to show, don't tell, this is what s/he was trying to get you to avoid.

Despite being evil evil evil puppy-kicking do-no-gooders, the two representatives of the Crowley Project that we meet end up teaming up with and helping the Good Guys. Okay, then.

Then there's the gender and race fail. The main female character is Melody Chambers, described at least twice as "girl geek". That sound you hear? It's me rolling my eyes right out of my head. Melody seems to have little purpose in the book except to fuss over some gadgets and declare that her readings are off the charts! or like she's never seen before!. Her instruments and readings do absolutely nothing to advance the plot. She's like Uhura from the original Star Trek, or better yet Gwen DiMarco in Galaxy Quest. ("I've got one job on this ship! It's stupid, but I'm gonna do it!) There are also lots of snide comments about her sex life (holy shit, women have sex?! who knew?!) made by Happy Jack, their female boss at the Carnacki Institute, and the narrator. She declares near the end of the book that she intends to reward Happy Jack with sex for saving her life. The male characters, unsurprisingly, are not treated this way.

And then there's Natasha. Oy vey. She is the first and only clearly labeled POC in the novel, and here are some of the phrases used to describe her upon her introduction: "self-made femme fatale", "beautiful creature", "dark hair, dark, slanted eyes, and an even darker heart," "looked down on as a half-breed by all her peers at school", "mixed-race background gave her an exotic air". Seriously? Also, she's wearing a pink leather catsuit, the preferred attire of "half-breed" "femme fatales" the world over. I guess.

I should note for the sake of balance that both the Carnacki Institute and the Crowley Project are headed by women... the former of which criticizes Melody's sexual proclivities in front of her teammates and the latter of which is rumored to eat mice and human hearts. You go, girls!

There's also Kim. Kim is dead and only appears in the novel as a ghost, but that doesn't stop JC from inexplicably stepping well out of his shallowly-defined character to fall in love with her at first sight. Despite already being dead, Kim is in danger from the Big Bad Evil Whatever which is literally pulling her around to lure JC away from his companions. It works, and he abandons Happy Jack and Melody to be tortured by Natasha and Erik. He fights off the Evil's illusions with his own willpower, and battles his way through multiple train cars full of demons to rescue a dead woman that he just fell in love with. At first sight. The demons tear him up, as well they should, but fear not: by the power of Deus Ex Machina, he is saved and reunited with his still-dead new girlfriend. Said girlfriend fawns over JC, constantly reaffirming his awesomeness just in case we didn't catch how awesome he was from the narrator's fawning. The only time I liked Kim was when she put the poor cat out its misery--she was mostly just there to motivate JC.

While the male characters avoid the unnecessary sexualization that the female characters receive, they don't really do much better in the characterization department. JC is a Mary Sue, a know-everything badass who knows or figures out all the answers and can literally kick demon ass. A bunch of demons. With divine intervention when he finally becomes overwhelmed. (And no, there is never a solid explanation given for this.) Happy Jack has the potential to be interesting--a telepath in the world described in this book would pretty much have to be, as he is, heavily medicated, depressed, and nervous, but he just comes off as whiny and tedious most of the time. His drugs seem to kick in almost instantaneously, which is odd, and completely alter his personality to turn him into JC-lite+telepathy. His biggest accomplishments in the book are in tandem with Natasha, undermining his standalone usefulness. Erik Grossman (oh, how cleverly named these characters are!) is in fact quite gross and is so over-exaggerated as to be cartoonish. Combine Boris Badenov with Dr. Frankenstein, give the result an extra coat of slime and bad dialogue, and you have Erik.

There was no real camaraderie between the characters. In fact, if this book is any indication, I'm not sure that this author can characterize his way out of a paper bag.

Which is a shame, really, because when the author isn't endlessly infodumping, poorly characterizing, and putting out cringeworthy dialogue, he's pretty damn good at creating a chilling atmosphere and vivid, horrific imagery. There are some really unsettling passages in this novel. Alas, they never last and are quickly undermined by JC's ability to shrug it all off.