D.D. Barant: Better Off Undead

FBI profiler Jace Valchek has been stranded in an alternate world unlike any she could have imagined. Here, pure humans like herself make up a mere one percent of a population otherwise comprised of vampires, werewolves, and golems. Selected for her expertise in understanding insanity and tracking down criminals, she now works for the NSA, trying to make a life for herself while seeking a way home. It hasn’t been easy. In a previous adventure, one of her friends was transformed, his life rewritten and his very nature altered from good guy to conniving sociopath. Jace will do anything to turn the criminal Tair back into his good-natured Doctor Pete persona. Even deal with the Mob.

Unfortunately, one favor for a werewolf mafia don quickly snowballs into a series of brutal murders, and Jace is one step behind the killers at every step. As she follows the trail, she uncovers pieces of a much larger operation involving prostitution, slavery, drugs, illegal golems, and much more. Worse, she’s infected by a werewolf during the course of things, and if she can’t find a cure soon, she’ll be howling at the moon like the rest. Of course, there is one possible solution. Too bad it involves a vampire bite. With two very different infections raging through her system, and murderers on the loose, Jace will need every inch of the skills that earned her the nickname, “The Bloodhound.”

God, I love this series. Each book is stranger and more interesting than the one before. This time, Barant explores the seedy criminal underground of the world Jace calls “Thropirelem.” From the werewolf mafia to vampire prostitutes, from illegal golem-building operations to crosskink clubs, there’s no shortage of sleazy and sinister schemes afoot. The multi-layered mystery at the heart of the story unfolds slowly, each new revelation revealing more of the big picture, and it’s anyone’s guess what’s really going on. There’s a heavy hardboiled vibe to the story as Jace descends into a world of compromises and shady deals, with unlikely allies and unexpected enemies.

As always, the worldbuilding is solid and fascinating. The more I see of Jace’s partner, the golem Charlie Alpha, the more I adore the big lug. How can you not love a several hundred pound pile of volcanic sand poured into a plastic shell and wrapped in an expensive pinstripe suit? Especially when he’s powered by the spirit of a T-Rex? That right there is genius, and he’s one of the best second bananas/supporting characters/wisecracking partners an urban fantasy heroine could ever ask for.

It’s been fun seeing Jace grow and change as she learns to cope with the world she’s stuck in. This time, she’s given some real things to worry about, as she faces (un)life as either a werewolf or a vampire, thoroughly hating both options. We get a bigger glimpse of what pure humans face in this reality, and it’s not pretty. Is Jace fighting a losing battle to be part of a dying breed, or is she representative of something stronger?

Better Off Undead is more than your average urban fantasy. Barant has done a remarkable job of switching gears with each new book, keeping the overall feeling fresh even as he continues to explore the unique setting and memorable characters. The emphasis on crime and justice, honor and obligation, friendship and loyalty, makes this a strong entry to an already splendid series, and I can’t wait for the next one.

(St. Martin’s, 2011)

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