Last week, Scooter revisited the origin novel of Harry Dresden, Jim Butcher’s Storm Front. That series is 15 books in and counting. I thought it would be a good time to review another urban fantasy; one that is just getting started.
The first book in the Reagan Moon series, The Ghost Box came out a few months ago, so it has been interesting to contrast some of its birth pangs with those of Storm Front.
Character: Like Harry Dresden, Reagan Moon is a loner living on the fringe, but he’s no freelance wizard, he’s something worse: a journalist. He writes paranormal stories for the L.A.-based tabloid, The Blue Crescent. Also like Dresden, he shows some definite holes in development. Moon is a skeptic, but this never quite meshes with his observations of the world: he has a lifelong interest in the paranormal, yet plays the cynic, even in the face of legitimate wonders. It isn’t that he believes in alternative explanations: he simply clings to irrational skepticism. When it comes to the supernatural, he appears to be uncharacteristically thoughtless. See, Moon is a thinker.
In fact, he’s an overthinker. He hesitates at shadows, and he places too much value in his otherwise harmless quips: assuming that the intended target cared as much about the unspoken emotions behind them as he clearly does. There are a few times in The Ghost Box when his thoughts are a stumbling block to the plot. Speaking of which…
Plot: Here’s where Duran shines. Although references to Kolchak, ancient artifacts, cryptozoology and unexplained mysteries abound in The Ghost Box, this is no kitchen sink novel. The details of Moon’s world are lovingly crafted and carefully incorporated into a fully realized, inhabitable world where science borders slightly more closely to magic than in our world, where the paranormal and pseudoscience is slightly more friendly with astrophysics, and where old soldiers never die, they actually hang around patiently for another kill shot.
With a story like this, it is almost expected that it contains a warehouse of powerful talismans and ancient supernatural weapons, and The Ghost Box delivers with The Asylum. It goes well beyond the traditional Warehouse 13 or even the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Asylum has a much deeper purpose than “keeping stuff out of the wrong hands.” Its custodian, the Mad Spaniard Matisse, even acknowledges the futility of such a temporal goal. No, he’s not preventing the inevitable Apocalypse with his storehouse, he’s delaying it to the best of his mortal abilities, for the sake of the remnant who might be spared the coming Hell.
That Hell is vivid and powerful. Using one of the artifacts from the Asylum, a pair of goggles called the Rival’s Curtain, Moon is able to see the supernatural overlay – good, bad and downright ugly – that exists in tandem with the dingy physical realm. This not only gives him (at times unwanted) insight into his forward path, but he also suffers profound loss when he must set the goggles aside.
One of the striking things about The Ghost Box is the plot’s discernment of occult, supernatural, extraterrestrial, and biblical matters. Where far too many modern books treat them as a pastiche of interchangable bogeys, Duran clearly has sorted these things out by species. This book trucks and trades in a lot of non-normal things, but it doesn’t do that lightly.
“It was a human, I could tell by its density. But draping this person’s back was something else, something sickly gray. Two leathery manta wings folded over each shoulder, giving the appearance of a cape, yet these wings weren’t for flying. They were embedded into the person’s body near the pectoral region. It was an immense invisible parasite.”
When Moon isn’t slowing the plot down by getting stuck in his own head, he’s confronting rich and wild characters.
The Ghost Box is exceptionally well-edited at the sentence level: readable and clear.
The book has a few tropes that I could do without: the kickass lady assassin (whose -it must be added- masculine skills are supernaturally enhanced by the demonic. Although I wondered briefly if this was a commentary on the neutering of the feminine in modern society, I dismissed it as a distraction from the plot either way), the gun that fires upon dropping, and a hero who occasionally falls into passivity and must rely on rescue. Some readers will take particular exception to Moon’s complete uselessness with a firearm – as the son of a murdered soldier, he would make more sense as either a trained gunman or, like Batman, an anti-gun-wielding fanatic.
But as we have seen in Skin Game, series’ have a lot of growing up to do between their first and last book, and The Ghost Box is no different. If Reagan Moon shows some immaturity in character development, he shows even more promise. And the vivid, insane plot and wild world that follows him around is definitely worth the price of admission.