This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
My next SPSFC read was Blackcoats: Dead Man Walking, by Michael Lachman.
Adam is a normal teen, who likes *checks notes* failing to talk to attractive member of opposite sex, getting bullied by jock, and debating merits and continuity of extended book and movie intellectual properties big in early 21st Century popular culture with friends. But don’t worry, that window-dressing is just the set-up. Indeed, considering the ghoulish (literally) showdown in the prologue, you know some shit’s about to go down and you didn’t pick up a novelisation of Dawson’s Creek by mistake. Although you may have picked up a novelisation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I don’t know what Dawson’s Creek is about. Don’t overthink it, it was a throw-away joke.
Anyway, from this intriguing prologue and endearingly geeky opening, the reader is thrown headlong into Teenagers Survive In World Full Of Adults Making Bad Choices, and it’s really rather fun. Forget Buffy (I mean actually don’t, Buffy is awesome, but just for now as an intellectual exercise), this story has enough elements of Hellboy and Men In Black to be highly engrossing, while at the same time retaining its originality.
C.H.E.S.S. – the Cryptid Handling and Extranormal Secret Service – is funny and the only note I would offer on the “someone really wanted our acronym to spell S.H.I.E.L.D.” cumbersomeness of it would be basically the only note I would offer for the whole story in general – Lachman should have leaned into it more. Yes, there were Blackcoats (enforcement) and Whitecoats (research), and that was a lovely little chess reference. But make the different roles within C.H.E.S.S. reflect the pieces on the board. Make the leaders of each department Kings and Queens. Make a “take rook’ here with you / he’s really more of a pawn” joke. Go on. Live a little.
Okay, maybe that only would have tickled me and Lachman made the right call by not overblowing it. I’m not here to tell you dad jokes are a substitute for a good story. Or am I?
No, what we got here was a good story, and a good setup for a promising series. We even circle back around to the school and have some solid fish out of water / 21 Jump Street style antics, which we love to see. For a while I was theorising that Holly was older than she looked, but the story kept me guessing and I was ultimately satisfied with the reveal.
Speaking of things I was attempting to predict, this story’s setting is rich with potential and I was only mildly disappointed by how it was realised in this specific book. The cryonics lab? I actually made a note here: “If those old agents don’t get thawed out sometime to do old school shit, it’s gonna be a huge waste.” I won’t spoil anything but there’s still (I think) potential there, to say nothing of the labs and the catacombs. It’s all very neat. And it’s a series, so of course you don’t want to use up all of the cool set-ups in book one.
Some of it was a little illogical but it hangs together. Frankly if you’re trying to hide a valuable super-serum and you can’t inject it into yourself because that’s too obvious, then the lone solitary other person in your life at that time is also too obvious and – yeah, that could have been plotted a bit better? On the other hand, there are still things we don’t know about this origin story. It’s all fine.
It’s a teenage high school setting with an undercurrent of paranormal secret agents (only science instead of spooky). So there’s a certain amount of hormones and awkwardness, but no sex. I’ll award it a warm, dry handshake with eye contact out of a possible just the word ‘moist’.
Blackcoats has a nice little showcase of violence but nothing very harrowing. A lot of its grosser moments are conceptual rather than visual. Nature is awful, and I appreciate this more science-oriented look at a lot of classic fantasy and horror staples. Nevertheless, two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.
Like I was saying, there could have been more embracing of the things that distinguished this story from others in the sub-genre (the worms were amazing, never let anyone tell you they weren’t). I understand the desire to play it safe, but a vampire and werewolf odd couple buddy cop trope really needs to play up its differences. Personally I loved the bat-hybrid concept, and hope there will be more development of the echolocation and other things in later stories. Hollow bones for lightness was a nice idea but it felt like it was ignored when convenient. Adam should have been fast yet fragile, and perhaps his knowledge of pop culture and things could have been used as a strength, leaving martial arts and brute force to Holly to create a perfect symbiosis. Albino bat boy and gothy wolf girl could also have been played a lot more visually and to greater effect, and an aversion to sunlight being dealt with using sunscreen is just – nah, that’s a lot of work. And vampire bats don’t burn in sunlight so why would that be a thing? In any case, these aren’t so much WTFs as missed opportunities to be WTFs, y’know? I’ll give Blackcoats a templar knights’ tentacle monster dungeon in Hobo With A Shotgun out of a possible elven royal court in an alley in Hellboy: The Golden Army.
My Final Verdict
I’ll give Blackcoats: Dead Man Walking a good solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, for the very cool protagonist and villain concepts, the cute ending and lead-in to the series, and the enjoyable misfit-kids nerd-talk. Only thing standing in the way of more stars is … I don’t know, just something indefinable about how all those things could have been amplified more, and tied together better. Still, thanks for a good story!