Review: Monster, by A. Lee Martinez

Ah, A. Lee Martinez. I have an interesting relationship with his books. Independent of the content, I mean. That’s a whole other story, and lucky thing, or what would I be talking about for the rest of my review? I picked up Gil’s All Fright Diner in high school. I read and enjoyed it. Not the best thing ever, but a competent riff on Lovecraftian horrors and dotted with zombies and a couple of cool protagonists. It’s a book that reads like it’s in the middle of a series (deliberately, I think) and it feels like everything has a past and a future. So I went to see what else the author had written. Nothing. And there wasn’t a bit of information on hir online, except for people wondering where information could be found. And this was 2005. We hadn’t yet reached the days of “all authors should blog and tweet and put up slideshows of their quirkily named cats,” but it was odd. And I guess I forgot about him until last summer, when my dad asked me to find him a few things at the used book store. My hometown has a much better used bookstore than it deserves, and there I discovered that Martinez had been putting out plenty in the intervening years. This was exciting to me and I set about gobbling up all the neat stuff. He’d been very profligate in what only amounts to five years. Could wipe the floor with George R. R. Martin (zing! followed by immediate penitent retraction).

Anyway. Monster. It’s not the first one of his I read, obviously. It’s not actually my favorite, which would be Too Many Curses. It’s not even the newest of his books, though considering it was published in 2009, I must again take admirable note of his speediness. Every writer works at the pace they’ve gotta work at, of course, and I’d choose a good book over a lot of fast books in all possible worlds, but I’m human. I appreciate it when a favorite works fast. What Monster is is the A. Lee Martinez book I have the most to say about.

Monster is, as so many genre novels are, the story of how the world didn’t end one day. Its grumpy protagonists are an incompetent supernatural pest control professional (the Ginger Waif shall lead it to her readers to decide which and how many nouns are modified by “supernatural”) and a perennially unlucky retail slave. They meet when Judy finds a Yeti in the freezer at work. Fate throws them together repeatedly, and in actual rather than rom-com odd couple fashion, they drive each other nuts. Eventually, they do work out that there’s a villain and a macguffin and there’s kidnapping and strange visions and everyone lives weirdly ever after, which is certainly better than the alternative.

And it’s amazing.

The most prominent gems in the book are Monster and Judy. They’re perfect examples of wonderful people to read about that you’d never want to know. Monster is a whining pain in the ass who’s clearly smart and talented enough to rule the world and just can’t be bothered (reminds me of my brother). Judy, through no fault of her own, has had a deeply fucked up life and is deeply damaged in turn, and her eagerness to prove herself is puppyish and pitiful rather than inspiring. And they’re meant to be icky people.

WARNING. A SPOILER IS COMING. YOU WILL BE ALERTED WHEN THE SPOILER IS concluded. This sentence is just a buffer. Really, stop reading now. Alright, so now I’m going to talk about the spoiler because I can’t resist it. It’s not an important to the plot spoiler. It’s a romantic subplot spoiler. Or, rather, it is the lack thereof that I spoil. That’s right. The clearly incompatible, grumpy protagonists do not form a romantic attachment. There’s a male and a female, both unattached at the right time, and the powers that be do not force them together. I loved this. I spent the last third of the book thinking, “please don’t make them a couple for no good reason.” When I finished up and they hadn’t decided to be in love, or even particularly friendly, I was so excited I skipped right out of the graveyard and went to tell everybody. Everybody here indicating my roommate. …What, you don’t go to the graveyard to read? Must be a Ginger Waif thing. Okay, here’s that last buffer sentence. I have a habit of reading things by accident. THE SPOILER IS NOW COMPLETE. YOU MAY RESUME YOUR ENJOYMENT OF THE REVIEW. Please enjoy this photograph of a cacomistle by way of apology.

I also love this world’s magic. The fantasy trope that holds that magic was more powerful and better and cooler back in the distant past drives me up the wall. Why? Why should that be true? Is magic the opposite of every human discipline ever? Why would people get worse at something? Sometimes there’s a conceit of a dark age where old knowledge is lost, but frequently authors don’t even bother with that. All the cool artifacts and spells and wizards are old and presumably lost. If there’s a justification, it’s usually a sort of Luddite excuse to the effect that people don’t believe in magic anymore because science, you see. Education makes fairies cry for some reason. And generally this is a world where magic has always been real, so why did people suddenly decide that evil science worked better than magic which apparently their ancestors had had plenty of access to? Anyway, in Monster, magic is going away because someone’s taking it away. It’s damaging and not quite right that there isn’t any magic. And when the problem is fixed, magic comes back! It’s great. And the whole system of why some people know perfectly well that there are Yetis and they like ice cream and some people live perfectly normal lives in the suburbs is well thought out and interesting.

Also, the main character changes color every time he wakes up and has different, often very silly, magic powers depending on what color he is. That’s awesome. I’m gonna stat it in GURPS now. And then I will be grumpy and capture Inuit walrus dogs. His sidekick is an interdimensional day laborer. His girlfriend’s a demon. (Actually, she’s the least interesting part of the book, but I do like the concept of making a Faustian bargain to get a girlfriend. Actually, is that wacky? I wouldn’t know.)

Also, there are monsters. Monsters everywhere. I love monsters. It’s a good measure of imagination, I think, creating and presenting your creatures. Go monsters. And Monster.And Monster.

So now comes the Ginger Waif grading period. How’s the book? The writing is funny. The wordsmithing itself is nothing special, but you’ll be laughing, so a lack of lyricism doesn’t matter. The humor is dark and mean, but it’s mean to everybody and everything, and rather delightful in an evil way. The book isn’t a comedy solely or even primarily, though. There’s more to it than a three-hundred page series of punchlines. The plot, granted, is a bit silly, but it’s executed well. Considering the elements, the arc is actually very smooth. This kind of book is given to deus ex machina episodes, simply because it’s hard to escalate meaningfully toward saving the world with phenomenal cosmic powers, and Monster does better than most. The main characters are awesome, and some of the side personalities are pretty good, though a few of them feel a little like they came out of the box and we polished off, like the corporate succubus girlfriend. (I exist in a weird subculture where businessdemon is a bit hackneyed, huh?) The villain is actually explored pretty well. She’s not the coolest baddie ever, but she makes a lot of sense and is pretty scary, even when she’s being a bit petty and irrational. And the world is very creative and immersive. In modern fantasy the world is often just a given, but Monster doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the everyday stuff. The better part of the action is suffused with monsters and weirdness.

Read Monster. It’ll be good for you. And read the rest of A. Lee Martinez’s work. I’d say start with Too Many Curses. It has a kobold!

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