AMBER LOVE 19-JUNE-2013 Cerulean, Vermilion, Veridian, Ochre, and Caput Mortuum. These are the Five Occulted Pigments of THE BLUE BLAZES; each contains unique properties and have a multitude of street slang monikers. Cerulean blue, the Peacock Powder is the central focus of drug trafficking in the supernatural urban world envisioned by Chuck Wendig. Cerulean produces a PCP style high that makes a user ignore pain and feel overall good vibrations until of course it starts to wear off and makes a person feel like hardened crap. The blue also opens up the eyes of a human to see what’s really going on and notice the nuances that people thought to be ordinary are really demons, monsters, hybrid creatures or subterranean elder gods.
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There are familiar tropes of paranormal fiction that fans of HELLBOY/BPRD or HARRY POTTER can recognize in THE BLUE BLAZES and it’s all mixed with the action, fighting, escaping, and personalities of an 80s Bruce Willis film. This is a world where there are humans who are blind to the monsters and the supernatural unless of course they get high on the blue pigment which gives them the blue blazes.
John Atticus Oakes, a cartographer of the Great Below provides the narrative of each chapter until the final one to cleverly educate the reader on all of the details about the cultures and subcultures of the classist rule of the underworld. He’s not even mentioned as a character by anyone else until halfway through the book. Oakes is a narrator that has enough insight to seem omniscient but his journal entries are brief and feel natural.
The monsters read from a DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS manual with plenty of their own races and classes. Some stay up top with the humans in regular interactions of life and crime; if they aren’t up top, these monster breeds and even some half-breeds have neighborhoods in the three realms of the underworld as well. The half-breeds aren’t welcome much like the “squibs” of J.K. Rowling’s Potter. Wendig provided an answer to a question that was in my mind: What are the breeding rules of the monsters, humans and half-breeds? Cartographer Oakes eventually tells it: since monsters appear in human form, they are capable of impregnating human women but it’s unlikely the human would survive the birth. These details are vital to any storytelling as comic book readers can tell you. There are great debates about how Lois Lane could possibly carry Superman’s baby or whether the Thing can get an erection and have sex with his non-mutated girlfriend. Readers are curious, especially when they walk into a massive world that so easily immerses them like Wendig’s supernatural New York City metro area.
Wendig doesn’t mask influences like the world of Mignola’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense which is based in Newark, New Jersey and features a hulking brute protagonist going up against a variety of legendary creatures. At times, THE BLUE BLAZES did feel too derivative, almost like BPRD fan fiction, but the secondary characters and the criminal underbelly pull it out of that mire. Wendig doesn’t use government conspiracies or bank on fictionalized versions of real historical figures. He places his star, Mookie Pearl, a human tank, not a monster, into the supernatural Mafia where people might be humanoid snake breeds of Naga or the working class and is always under threat of goblin attacks. One of my favorite storytelling mechanisms is that Wendig created several different gangs including monster gangs and human gangs and he explained the quirky theme of each one.
One thing is certain about the way Wendig describes a scene: he can show the perspective of any character in an environment and point out how what is grungy and dank to one person like bits of broken glass and twisted metals placed, piled, and mortared, is what others use to create beauty in the surroundings. He bops around the points of view without using chapter breaks if every perspective is the same scene. I never once felt lost when he did.
In one of Wendig’s previous successful series, the cover to BLACKBIRDS was pitted against Seanan McGuire’s DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON in a fun cover design contest. When you see the cover for DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON and then read Wendig’s descriptions of the all female rockabilly gang, The Get-Em-Girls, you can spot the similarities particularly in the main female lead of THE BLUE BLAZES Nora Pearl, Mookie’s rebellious lethal daughter who dons a streetwalker version of a schoolgirl uniform. The Wendig/McGuire camaraderie is easily spotted on their Twitter interactions.
Other than THE BLUE BLAZES feeling unusually long in the second act for a rapid-fire action book, I actually had only one major gripe. Wendig is a writer who can easily come up with 80 different ways to describe testicles or the smell of rancid meats so it’s with the knowledge of his super-wordslinging abilities that I am bothered by the banal use of the word to describe Mookie Pearl’s shirt as a “wifebeater” in the opening pages. I realize this word came into regular American usage to connote the trashy mobile home fashion of a Budweiser drunk who would find no other way to fester through life unless he is abusing weaker human beings. Knowing Wendig’s work as I do, I am completely confident that he could have taken a higher road to describe the shirt of Mookie Pearl rather than choosing consciously to use a word that is the “N-word” of domestic abuse survivors. Wendig doesn’t throw around the N-word or “gay” or any other slur unless it comes from the dialog of a character who would use it. In his narratives, I expect better consideration because it comes from him not Mookie nor the cartographer nor a bottom-dwelling Hell pig of the underworld. Mookie is a huge brawny man described as a Paul Bunyon who is quiet, enjoys certain fine quality eccentricities in food, can’t rebound from his failed family life, and is content being the muscle for the people who make decisions. Somewhere in there, Wendig could describe the white sleeveless shirt that exudes the odors of sweat, salt and salami to give readers the visual they would want to imagine Mookie Pearl in their heads.