Anton Strout: Dead Waters

Simon Canderous. Psychometrist, ex-thief, agent of New York’s Department of Extranormal Affairs (Other Division), member in good standing of the Fraternal Order of Goodness. He handles the weird stuff before the weird stuff eats his fellow New Yorkers. It’s the kind of job where “Not Dead Yet” would be an acceptable quarterly assessment, were it not for the paperwork. Thanks to budget cuts, the DEA is overworked, under-appreciated, and strained in every direction, especially the field agents.

After Simon and his girlfriend Jane (ex-evil cultist turned technomancer for the DEA’s Greater and Lesser Arcana Division) take care of an antique store haunted by the ghost of an angry tattoo artist (don’t ask), they’re called upon to look into something REALLY weird: an NYU film professor drowned inside his own apartment. As Simon investigates the mystery that was Professor Mason Redfield, he learns about Redfield’s own brief tenure as a member of F.O.G. What seemed like a random killing proves to have ties to magical community, as well as to the NYU film community. Now Simon has to deal with zombies, water spirits, cranky film students, and the restless ghosts of New York, if he wants to get to the heart of this mystery. To make things worse, his relationship with Jane is strained by Simon’s own uncontrollable mood swings and emotional outbursts, lingering after effects of the ghost he busted early on. Will Simon and Jane survive long enough to have the big Moving In Together Discussion?

(I know, I ask this sort of thing all the time, and the answer is always “well, duh, the main character always lives, and the girlfriend survives … some of the time. Usually. Way to build false tension there. Right? Right? Okay, look. It’s a reviewer thing. And at least one of them survives until the end of the book. Happy? I’ve half-spoiled it for you. Or have I?)

As always, Strout delivers a somewhat zany, fast-paced, wholly enjoyable urban fantasy adventure that lives and breathes New York atmosphere. It’s the sort of series where it makes perfect sense that the government has a section dealing with the supernatural, but they’re just as mired in paperwork, bureaucracy, division infighting, and budgetary concerns as the rest of us. And of course, there’s weird stuff going on around New York University. That’s just to be expected. Strout adeptly mixes humor, action, magic and memorable characters as he delivers the goods. This series rarely disappoints.

One of the strongest components of the Simon Canderous series has always been that emotional component. Simon’s a great character, a quip-making pop culture aficionado who needs a straight man to be truly effective. Usually, that’s his partner Connor Christos, who reins in Simon’s impulses like a slightly bemused big brother. More often, that role’s also been played by the delightfully practical Jane (she was an evil cultist until she discovered the DEA had a better health plan). Together, Simon and Jane are an adorably chaotic pair, busting ghosts and heads before going on Date Night. That’s why this book … distressed me. The ratcheting up of emotional conflict, artificially enhanced by the encounter at the beginning, was just maddening. To see Simon wrestling with inner turmoil hardly of his making, and to see the couple strained for no good reason, it just didn’t work as well. Even with Simon mentioning this out loud, and acknowledging he was being influenced, and seeing him still manage to make stupid moves, it didn’t ring true, not like their usual interactions. As far as subplots go, it wasn’t the strongest I’ve seen from Strout, much like the inevitable screwball confusion appearing like clockwork in any romantic comedy to drag out the conclusion.

But you know? Even after all that, this is a series I’m willing to stand behind one hundred percent. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s imaginative, it has nifty characters, and it proves that Strout is still going strong after four books. Bring on the next Simon Canderous adventure.

(Belated reviewer’s note: this may be the end of the series for the time being, according to the author. If so, that’s truly a shame. If you like the series, buy it for friends, give it as a gift, and maybe we can convince author and/or publisher to continue this in some fashion….)

(Ace, 2011)

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