Mookie Pearl is an old-school slab of gangster muscle: an in-the-know enforcer for the Organization of New York. Sure, he has a slightly incongruous love of charcuterie, but other than that, he's pretty much what you'd expect of a man whose living and reputation both hinge on the judicious application of angry muscle to shady dealings. But ever since a construction crew drilled a hole so deep it opened up a permanent doorway to hell—a subterranean nightmare world of goblins and dead things seething beneath the streets of New York—both Mookie and the Organization have been fighting back the demons: the criminal underworld policing its literal cousin. And that means controlling the use and sale of the Blue Blazes, a chthonic drug that lets the user see the hidden magic in the world. Also known as Cerulean, Blue is the most commomplace of the mythical Occulted Pigments, a series of underworld substances reputed to have different, magical powers; assuming the others even exist at all, that is.
Mookie doesn't think they do. But when Casimir Zoladski, chosen heir to the Organization, asks him to find the rarest pigment of all—Purple, aka Caput Mortuum, reputed to cure all ailments and restore the dead to life—Mookie does what he's told. Because Konrad Zoladski, Casimir's grandfather and current head of the Organization, is dying of cancer, and Casimir isn't ready to inherit just yet. A simple enough task, thinks Mookie—but when Casimir ends up dead, and Mookie's own would-be gangster daughter, Nora, claims responsibility for his murder, things get complicated quickly. In a city full of gang politics and nightmare monsters, can Mookie stay alive long enough to get to the truth? Or will the underworld claim him at last?
On balance, The Blue Blazes is an original, solid synthesis of hardboiled urban fantasy, crime noir, and Lovecraftian horror elements held together by fast-paced writing and a distinct narrative voice. Wendig does naturalistic dialogue and memorable descriptions like nobody's business, and his worldbuilding here is both compelling and cohesive without falling prey to infodumps. The problem is with Mookie himself, and the hard-nosed cast of criminals whose perspectives and doings constitute the bulk of the narrative: they are, to put it simply, familiar to the point of stereotype, and in a story with so much originality to potentially recommend it, I found the reliance on archetypal gangster woes, even when spiced up by the addition of a supernatural element, to be thoroughly unmoving.
In my case, at least, a smidgeon of the blame for this rests with the back-cover blurb provided by Wendig's fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher, which describes Mookie Pearl as "an everyman hero to root for." Regardless of whether this assessment lines up with Wendig's authorial intentions, the idea that anyone would consider a brutal, sexist, drug-dealing career criminal to be a sympathetic everyman just because (and I'm going out on a limb, here) he also happens to be a straight, blue-collar white dude cuts right to the heart of everything I hate about double standards in genre. Even though Mookie is ostensibly the (anti)hero of the piece, at no time during the course of three hundred and fifty-six pages was I rooting for him. Which isn't to say I was barracking for the Stygian forces ranged against him—the Nagas and goblins and halfbreeds and gangsters whose various schemes are manifestly evil. No: I was rooting for the ladies.
Which, all things considered, is a disappointingly thankless task—and given that my main complaint about The Blue Blazes is the characterization, it's worth investigating exactly why that is, because it's not like Wendig hasn't made an effort on the gender front. In a story that jumps between multiple third-person perspectives, there are two female point of view characters: Nora Pearl, Mookie's would-be badass daughter, and Skelly, leader of the Get-Em-Girls, a crew of rockabilly, roller-derby ladies with the attitude to match their aesthetic. The novel passes the Bechdel test, and while both Nora and Skelly are seriously imperiled during the course of events, the crapsack nature of the narrative means that their treatment isn't exceptional; more importantly, however, both women play an active role in the story, rather than being passive victims of circumstance.
On the flipside, however, there's a threefold problem with the portrayal of women in The Blue Blazes: their representation, motivation, and deployment within the narrative. The very first time we meet Nora Pearl, we see her from Mookie's dismissive, infantilizing, and, frankly, squicky perspective. Nora calls Mookie daddy; he calls her little girl; we're told that she's a "pouty, pissy, mean-ass, don't-give-a-shit-about-nobody-but-herself teen" (p. 14), though her actual age seems to be twenty, and are then treated to Mookie's reminiscing preference for her innocent, childhood self over the woman she's become. More disturbingly, though, her coquettish behavior towards Mookie, coupled with the latent sexualization of his gaze, made my skin crawl:
Those eyes, mean and bright like match-tips at the moment of striking. Chestnut hair down over her shoulders, longer than Mookie remembers it.
She appears, plucking something out from under her tongue. He doesn't see what.
She still looks like a schoolgirl. Tartan skirt. Blue cardigan. It's her look these days . . .
A wink. She goes to the bar, curls the tip of a red Converse high-top around a stool-leg and pulls it to her . . .
She shrugs. Coy. Playful.
Nora grins a Cheshire cat grin—as a girl he rarely saw her smile and even this one doesn't seem all that happy. She always was a good actress.
"Got it in one, Daddy-o."
Daddy-o. So she has been hanging out with the Get-Em-Girls. "Why are you here, Nora? Ain't safe." He starts to feel weird. Dizzy in her presence.
"I'm always safe with you around." She twirls her hair . . .
. . . "Go home. Go back to your mother. Quit playing like you're a gangster. You don't have it. We both know you just did it to piss me off." (pp. 13-15)
That last speech marks the exact point in The Blue Blazes at which I decided Mookie Pearl could go fall in a well and die, and transferred my loyalties straight to Nora. But even though she does get her own point of view sections, Mookie's assessment of her here is never really contradicted. Throughout the novel, even Nora describes her anger at Mookie as being teenage and therefore somewhat pointless and juvenile, despite the fact that it constitutes her sole motivation. Everything she does is calculated to get Mookie's attention, to spite or surprise him somehow, and when coupled with the fact that she continues to call him daddy—an affectation which, given their initial interaction, comes off as profoundly creepy—the effect is to render Nora hollow: a female character defined exclusively by her relationship with her father. While the daddy's girl archetype isn't necessarily unrealistic, in Nora's case, it suffers from a lack of specifics; when asked outright what Mookie did to earn her hatred, Nora never gives details or even so much as hints at their existence, which, in the absence of any other description of her life or personality, only supports the idea that her anger is somehow petty and disproportionate to his crimes.
Only at the end of the final chapter do we find out what Mookie did; or at least, we find out the specific event that tipped Nora over the edge. And while I understand Wendig's decision to keep this piece of information back from the reader—a last-minute reveal to round out Mookie's personal arc—this is exactly the problem: that in order to do so, Nora's internal development, motives, and personal history have all been left blank, so that nothing in her sections can spoil the reveal. Throughout the book, I'd felt frustrated by how little time was spent on Nora's perspective—and Skelly's, for that matter—relative to the other characters. In fact, the novel's main structural failing stems from exactly this point: a blocky, repetitive sequence of scenes around the one-third mark where, rather than leaping across to Nora's point of view and fleshing her out, Wendig instead both double- and triple-handles various pieces of information in his determination to stick with his villains, showing the same scene and its aftermath through multiple pairs of eyes. So to reach the end and learn that Nora's interiority—and therefore her integrity as a character—was effectively sacrificed to give Mookie a slightly more poignant ending left me feeling not only betrayed, but actively angry.
And then there's Skelly, leader of the Get-Em-Girls. The idea of an all-female rockabilly roller-derby gang whose members use deliberately playful, old-school slang is powerfully, viscerally appealing. Given the staid, bricks-and-mortar bastardy of the classic crime noir criminal set, the idea of exploding those tropes through judicious use of Skelly and her crew was potentially gamechanging. Except, that's not what happens. Like Nora, Skelly's point of view sections are curiously limited, especially when set alongside those of their (male, archetypal) counterparts. We never really learn why Skelly does what she does, how she came to run the Girls or what it entails—in fact, there's a curious innocence to her, so that when, alongside Mookie, she's introduced to the living dead inhabitants of Daisypusher, an aptly named underworld town, Skelly is visibly revolted. At which point, a dead woman tells her: "Girl, you gonna dress yourself up with skulls and death, you ought to know what it really looks like. . . . Death ain't romantic, girlie. It ain't pretty. It ain't fashionable. Go on. Get a face-full. Gawk like a tourist!" (p. 177).
Up until this point, Skelly has been painted as the leader of a criminal gang, one strong and successful enough to police its own territory, venture into underworld dealings, both deal out and defend against violence, and generally hold its own. But with this criticism of her squeamishness—and, more importantly, with Skelly's acceptance of it as valid—we're left with an altogether different impression: that the Get-Em-Girls aren't really gangsters at all, but just a bunch of rockabilly chicks playing dress-up. And all at once, the gorgeous physical descriptions of the Girls and their kickass aesthetic feels less like original worldbuilding and more like evidence of a male gaze differentiated from the mainstream only by a preference for Suicide Girls over Playboy bunnies. As far as the business end of the narrative is concerned, the Get-Em-Girls are all style, no substance: a striking visual effect whose enormous potential is quickly reduced to one dead lesbian (of course) and a vegan gang boss who starts to feel uncomfortable about her skull tattoos the second she encounters some actual blood and horror.
Worse still, and for reasons that only make sense Because Tropes—which is to say, reasons that are Complete Bullshit And Make No Sense Whatsoever—Skelly starts to develop a romantic/sexual interest in Mookie. This interest is telegraphed as follows:
And he's a fine lookin' piece of meat. The bee's knees. The cat's paw. That doesn't mean he's a pretty man. He isn't. He's pit bull ugly. Got a face like a fist, a body like a bunch of tractor tires fitted around an oil drum.
But those hands. That jaw. He could crush her. Could eat her right up. (p. 184)
It's difficult to overstate how uncomfortable this section makes me. Not just because of the violent imagery, the idea that Skelly is attracted to a man she thinks of as "insane" and "stupid" earlier on the same page purely because he possesses the ability to hurt and overpower her, but because the there's nothing in her characterization otherwise to suggest this is what she likes in a partner. And Mookie himself is clearly regressive when it comes to gender: he becomes enraged at the idea of Nora having a boyfriend, "the punk thinking he can do things to Mookie Pearl's daughter" (p. 153)—because Mookie's possession of and fatherly claim on Nora is more important than Nora's sexual autonomy, natch—and admits to having actively prevented his ex-wife from working ("No wife of mine gets a job" [p. 259]).
On the basis of all the evidence, then, Mookie is aggressive and traditional and Skelly is assertive and liberal; there's even an earlier scene where Skelly deliberately flirts with Mookie in order to unsettle him, and having succeeded, feels pleased at her dominance over him. But the sexist tropes of crime noir go deep; and as such, Mookie, our apparently everyman hero, needs a woman to end up with, and as Skelly is the only woman available, that lot falls to her, such that the novel ends with her taking Mookie's hand and leading him up to bed. At which conclusion I damn near threw the book at the wall: not only because there's not so much as a glimmer of chemistry between them, let alone much banter; but because both of them have chosen to ignore the fact that when Skelly was captured by potentially rapist goblins—because that's what happens in this setting; human women get stolen and impregnated by horrible monsters—Mookie doesn't try to save her. Instead, he delegates the task to someone he has very few reasons to trust, and while it's great for Skelly's character that she ultimately ends up saving herself (albeit with a little help), the idea that she'd then fall into bed with a man who effectively abandoned her to be assaulted by goblins doesn't sit well with me.
Which brings me back to the issue of Mookie himself, and the ultimate reason why, despite its many other fine qualities, I found the The Blue Blazes to be a roundly frustrating read: because the primary, sympathetic focus was not only reserved for characters I actively disliked, but because their time in the spotlight visibly came at the expense of the ones I did. The fact that this breakdown also worked along gender lines, with female development and autonomy sacrificed for male catharsis, only intensified my disappointment. Crime noir, as I've said before, is a genre rife with sexist tropery, and while I'm nominally used to that, the presence of several strong, original, and potentially subversive elements early on raised my hopes higher than they normally stand, with the result that their steady dashing was that much more painful a process.
Reading The Blue Blazes was like playing a video game whose main plot wasn't just cliched, but structured so as to pose an actual barrier to exploring the far more compelling background world and NPC plots. I wanted Nora's story; I wanted Skelly to be more than just a convenient reward for Mookie; I wanted the Get-Em-Girls to be more than just a passing justification for Skelly's presence in the novel. Instead, I got no less than three different male characters agonizing over their failed relationships with estranged wives and distant daughters, with Mookie actually arguing with the other two over whose bad husbandry and absent fathering was the worst, scenes that read like twisted contests of sexist braggadocio. I got one awesome female character, Karyn the butcher, who appeared in a single scene for seemingly the sole purpose of making Mookie feel personally victimized when her girlfriend, a member of the Get-Em-Girls, was gunned down in his presence. I got background worldbuilding which, while creative and creepy, also made prominent use of the rape and forced impregnation of women, with bonus use of the tired Evil Halfbreeds trope and a link between Nagas—Snakefaces—and their human guise as Chinese gangsters—Snakeheads—that felt less clever than it did disturbingly racist. (See? It's funny because they're not really human after all!)
I got Werth, the Old Goat, Mookie's morally ambiguous and not-as-loyal-as-he-could-be halfbreed friend who is, of course, too old for this—and I got Mookie Pearl, a meatfisted gangster so familiar in his construction that, bar his love of charcuterie—a detail which floats on the surface of the story without ever permeating it, like a film of grease splattered on water—he could be any wifebeater-wearing, run-to-fat, sexist antihero from any gangster narrative you cared to name (like Sin City's Marv, for instance). If that sort of classic tropery is right up your alley—or if, at the very least, it's a configuration of characters that hasn't yet worn you out—then chances are, The Blue Blazes is the right book for you; but despite its many other achievements, it wasn't the right book for me.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.