Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

half-resurrection blues

I really enjoyed Half-Resurrection Blues, the first book in the new Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, in a way I wasn’t expecting to. Similar to Prairie Fire, Half-Resurrection Blues felt so comforting to read, the kind of book about a strong, enmeshed community and group of people always looking out for each other that I could slip into and bask in the shared feelings of love, affection, friendship, brotherhood, and community.

Carlos Delacruz is an inbetweener, someone who exists halfway between life and death. The only known one of his kind in New York City, he works for the New York Council of the Dead, dispatching unruly ghosts to the Afterworld. Carlos’ copacetic acceptance of his forgotten past life and not fitting in among the living or the dead is shattered when he runs into another inbetweener on New Year’s Eve, who may or may not be part of a larger conspiracy. Small magical beasts called ngks are popping up in abandoned houses whose presence is crippling to ghosts and inbetweeners. Out there is a sorcerer who wants to use the power of the ngks to open the entrada, the entrance to the Afterworld, and blur the boundaries between the living and the dead. And this sorcerer may have the answers to Carlos’ questions—who was he? How did he die? And why did he get brought back as an inbetweener?

I’m probably in the minority for saying this, but of the two novels written by Daniel José Older released in 2015, Shadowshaper and Half-Resurrection Blues, I far preferred the latter, largely because it’s an adult novel, so Older has much more space to demonstrate just how excellent a writer he is. The entire book is written from Carlos’ point of view in present tense, which can be tricky to maintain over an entire novel, especially one meant to be fast-paced, but Older does it effectively. And his writing is just plain superb. It’s technically complex and nuanced, as though Older deliberated over every single word choice and word arrangement, but it also feels relaxed, as if Carlos’ laid-back voice and finding the right words to put in his mouth was the easiest thing in the world to write.

Carlos Delacruz is a reasonably engaging protagonist. I wasn’t head-over-heels in love with him, but I was a huge fan of his voice, and as his internal struggles about his inbetweener identity. With no memories prior to his current existence, no history, not even a name (his current name was bestowed upon him by his ghost friend Riley), Carlos has no identity but the one he creates for himself. Not dead enough for the ghosts and not alive enough for the living, Carlos is of both worlds and of neither. Why does he exist? Should he even exist? Should he really pledge his allegiance to the Council, an overly bureaucratic, questionably effective organization, when the Council doesn’t even know what to do with his existence?

As I touched upon in the opening, my favorite thing about Half-Resurrection Blues isn’t just the cast of characters themselves, but the friendship, family, community, and/or spiritual ties connecting everyone together. Some of these people Carlos has known since he was resurrected (his ghost partners Riley and Dro, the house ghost Mama Esther, Babá Eddie and Kia at the botanica) and some he just meets in this book (Victor and Dr. Tijou) but who turn into valued and trusted partners in Carlos’ life. These characters’ love and friendship is laced with a hefty amount of snark and bickering, but it’s always out of familiarity. At the drop of a hat when it’s needed the most, they’ll lend each a hand or shoulder, offer comfort and advice, and fight to protect and save each other’s lives.

Half-Resurrection Blues takes its core identity from the city of Brooklyn in which the story takes place. And this written iteration of Brooklyn is deliberately written as the multicultural borough it is, complete with gentrifying white hipsters as the outsiders. The major and supporting characters range from Latino to black to Puerto Rican to Haitian to characters whose race and ethnicity are unknown but are clearly not white.

One negative thing I knew going into this book was that Older’s portrayal of Sasha, the woman Carlos falls in love with, isn’t entirely the best. After reading the book, my feelings on the issue are mixed. On the one hand, I agree with what others have said that Carlos’ instant and thereafter constant sexualization of Sasha in his thoughts the moment he sees a picture of her is boring and off-putting. Ditto with the insta-love after hanging out only a couple of times.

On the other hand, I was—and I’m not even kidding—dumbfounded at when Carlos first asks if he can escort Sasha one night while they’re taking a walk in Prospect Park, and when she says yes but that’s all, he’s completely fine with that. I can’t think of a single other instance of a book told from a male character’s perspective in which a woman turns down the man’s offer or request for sex, and he’s completely fine with that. We know Carlos wants to badly—her body and having sex with her is all he’s been thinking about whenever she crosses his thoughts. But when Sasha says no, he takes it in good stride, continues to enjoy his time with her, and after walking her home, spends the rest of the evening ecstatic and giddy. That I find this so amazing is also incredibly sad—I should not be overcome with joy after reading a book in which a guy acts like a decent person, that even though he wants to sleep with Sasha, he’s overjoyed to spend time with her anyway even if she says no. This should not be revolutionary.

All that being said, I wanted much more characterization on Sasha’s behalf outside of being Carlos’ love interest. Still, this is the first in a series, so there’s plenty of opportunity for this to change.

As far as the plot goes, it was serviceable, but definitely not the book’s strong suit. The parts more or less fit together, but the plot didn’t quite coalesce into as tight a mystery as it was probably meant to be. Especially near the ending, cause and effect had gotten muddy regarding which character had done what to get things into their current state.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Half-Resurrection Blues. I had fun. I read so many books these days for class, research, editing work, and my own projects—it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed. As such, I especially appreciate getting to read a book that scratched the part of my brain where reading is a purely relaxing, pleasurable experience. I already have the second book Midnight Taxi Tango on hold at the library, and you can definitely expect a review to show up in a few weeks.

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