Just in time for Halloween!
The hard boiled detective in a fantasy city has been done before, but never so authentically as in Misha Burnett’s Bad Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Case Files of Erik Rugar. Even if you don’t like Urban Fantasy, all you need is a love of hard boiled detective works and you’ll find this book satisfying.
Before we get into the meat of the book, you should know that I’m not a huge fan of urban-fantasy. Not just the bland shovelware produced by legions of writers for the old dinosaur publishers, but urban fantasy in general. Marrying the modern outlook on the world with elements of the fantastic normally comes across as cheap and lazy. The two usual work-arounds are to hide the fantasy in the real world or to use the real world with a word replacement so that the fantasy elements turn into mere humans in rubber masks and the tech moves from cell phones to wands. The two usual work-arounds are to hide the fantasy in the real world or to use the real world with a word replacement so that the fantasy elements turn into mere humans in rubber masks and the tech moves from cell phones to wands. Done right, the genre requires a lot more thought and a much more deft touch than just dropping orcs into a ghetto and elves into high society.
That holds particularly true when grafting fantasy into the detective and mystery genres. Readers need to have clear-cut and understandable rules of the game to play along, and having the easy out of “a wizard did it” all too often tempts authors into shortcuts that sweep the leg out from under the necessary mutual understandings. Bad Dreams and Broken Hearts avoids all of those pitfalls and presents a world much like that shown on the cover – it looks at first and second glance like any other stud with a gun cover. It’s only gradually that you realize there’s a massive dragon hovering right there. That sly and gradual realization of what’s really going on here stealing over you occurs several times throughout this title.
And we’re going to get into what’s really going on here below the fold. Before we go that far, let’s get a few non-spoiler details out of the way. Misha’s writing snaps along with the brisk pace, terse delivery, and blank slate hero that marks all the best hard boiled works. His understated descriptions and emotional subtlety are in display here at their finest. For his writing alone, this book deserves a place on your shelf.
Rugar’s World is a city set in a straight up fantasy realm. It isn’t our Earth plus magic, it is its own world with its own history and politics and cultures. Our protagonist is a quiet American type of guy who keeps the peace in a west coast city that lies somewhere on the cultural and physical border between LA and Seattle. City politics rears its ugly head and complicates otherwise straightforward murder investigations. Think Bright without the heavy handed identity politics. Or Law and Order with wands and necromancers and nations filled with golems and vampires.
And that leads to the pleasant surprise of Misha’s creative approach to races. You won’t find the normal array of D&D-style knock offs. No elves and orcs, but instead a race of robotic constructs and yarn covered skeletons that drain the life essences of humans and animal-human hybrids called moreaus that serve as a sort of underclass. It’s unusual, disconcerting, and creative in all the right ways.
The case files start with a simple monster hunt, go through a bit of a locked room murder mystery, then lead up to a missive powerful artifact in the form of a deck of powerful cards, and finally to a terrorist plot that would make Guy Fawkes blanche. And here we have to segue into realms that might ruin one of the books big surprises…The ramp-up is effective and turns the collection of stories into something much greater than the sum of its parts.
…at least for me. It turns out that the slow build-up of stakes throughout the books turns what could have been a mere collection of short stories into one long novel that proves to be far greater than the sum of its parts.
You can enjoy each tale on its own merits, but true satisfaction will come from reading them in order and paying close attention to the details. A lot of hanging threads get tied off in the last story, and part of me regrets ruining even as much as I have. I only mention it in an attempt to convince those of you still sitting on the fence to pony up the price of admission. If you have any love for cops and detectives, this one is worth it.