Review: The Naming of the Beasts
by Tom Ingram
Ever since Alan Moore created the character of John Constantine in the eighties, the subgenre of urban fantasy that involves trenchcoat-clad PIs who happen to have magical powers has flourished. In the nineties, there was the Anita Blake series. In 2000, Storm Front came out, kicking off the Dresden Files. This is an oddly specific pairing of genres, but the formula works well enough as evidenced by the fact that Hellblazer, Dresden, and, unfortunately, Anita Blake are all still going.
Mike Carey comes late to the table. He wrote for Hellblazer for a few years starting in 2002. His first novel, The Devil You Know, came out in 2006. The Naming of the Beasts is now the fifth book in the series, with a sixth scheduled to come out later this year. With the saturation of the genre, Naming feels superfluous, but it’s certainly worth it for the ride.
The story follows Felix Castor, a professional exorcist, as he tries to remove the demon Asmodeus from his friend Rafi’s body. Like in the Anita Blake series, there is no barrier between those who know about the supernatural and those who don’t (the masquerade). Everyone knows about the existence of ghosts, zombies, and demons, but the law has been slow to catch up and as a result Rafi could be legally culpable for all the people his demon kills.
Besides that, there is also an excommunicated Catholic sect and a top secret government team of ghost-torturers that both want to get ahold of Rafi for their own reasons. That is not to mention Castor’s guilt over his part in Rafi’s demonic possession, which manifests itself as a raging alcohol addiction that Carey depicts poignantly.
The Felix Castor books have a few differences setting them apart from the rest of the genre. There isn’t any magic in the form of spells being hurled back and forth (or if there is, it doesn’t appear in this book). Castor and the people he works with are exorcists. They all access their powers in different ways–Castor plays a tin whistle, an ally of his uses Cat’s Cradles, and one character even forces out ghosts by swearing at them until they leave. Castor himself rarely gets a chance to fight his enemies openly, and on the rare occasions he does he gets the shit kicked out of him.
However, the basics are all there. The trenchcoat, the sour police contact endlessly put upon by his superiors, and even the ultimate defeat of the bad guy through the savvy application of new technology to old magical problems (c.f. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her rocket launcher). This is an excellent novel, but sometimes you’ve got to wonder what the point is.
Felix Castor may not be winning the Creativity Jamboree anytime soon, but as a perfectly straight run through the genre tropes, every part of this book works. Carey’s vivid prose calls to mind Hammett and Chandler in a way that few others in the genre can manage. At nearly five hundred pages, it’s fairly long, but it never feels long. It might be a drive through familiar territory, but to make up for it, it’s a really good drive.
You can find The Naming of the Beasts online at McNally Robinson.