Sunday 23 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 126-128: "The Disillusionists trilogy" by Carolyn Crane

Total page count: 1139 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Once again, I'm going to make things easier for myself, by using a blurb:

Justine knows she's going to die. Any second now.

Justine Jones has a secret. A hardcore hypochondriac, she's convinced a blood vessel is about to burst in her brain. Then, out of the blue, a startlingly handsome man named Packard peers into Justine's soul and invites her to join his private crime-fighting team. It's a once-in-a-lifetime. With a little of Packard's hands-on training, Justine can weaponize her neurosis, turning it outward on Midcity's worst criminals, and finally get the freedom from the fear she's always craved. End of problem.

Or is it? In Midcity, a dashing chief of police is fighting a unique breed of outlaw with more than human powers. And while Justine's first missions, one against a nymphomaniac husband-killer, are thrilling successes, there is more to Packard than meets the eye. Soon, while battling her attraction to two very different men, Justine is plunging deeper into the world of wizardry, eroticism and cosmic secrets. With Packard's help, Justine has freed herself from madness - only to discover a reality more frightening than anyone's worst fears.

November's main pick for Vaginal Fantasy is a bit of a slow starter, and I found myself actually wishing for a bit more exposition in order to establish the world in which these books take place. The concept of the trilogy is so clever, though, and I was very quickly hooked, to the point where I couldn't stop after the first book (which is quite frequently the case with the VF books), but read the whole series in less than a week. 

The books are set in Midcity, an urban fantasy city that reminds me a lot of Chicago. There are some people with special powers, known as highcaps, who can do everything from move objects with their minds, manipulate matter, invade people's dreams or psychologically manipulate their victims. There are some who suggest that the highcaps are just an urban legend, but as more and more people are dying from bricks flying out of nowhere, it seems very likely that highcaps exist and are very dangerous. Midcity is in the midst of a crime wave, and handsome new police chief Otto Sanchez seems to be the only one willing to try to make a change.

Justine is not a highcap, she's a neurotic young woman whose mother died of a particular kind of aneurysm, called a vein star, and Justine is convinced this is what's going to kill her too. She gets panic attacks at the most inconvenient moments and has spent a small fortune going to doctors and the emergency room when she's convinced she's near death. It's putting serious strain on her relationship with her boyfriend, who just wants her to get over her irrational fears. So when she meets the mysterious Packard while at a Mongolian restaurant and he claims that unless she accepts his help, her fear is leading her on a rapid path into crippling insanity. He says he can teach her to channel her fears into other people, using it as a weapon to destabilise them. Justine scoffs at this idea, but can't quite put the idea out of her mind. She returns to the restaurant, and Packard introduces her to some of the other Disillusionists who work for him. He has a secret, private group of vigilantes, who use their powers to psychologically bring criminals towards rock bottom, forcing them to change their ways and minds. They can channel rage, ennui, addiction, gambling problems and the like and Packard thinks Justine could be an invaluable asset because of her health fears.

Once the Disillusionists "zing" their worst impulses into their victims, they themselves are free of them for up to a month and feel great as a result. However, according to Packard, they can't just go around channelling their fears or rage or cravings into anyone, or the psychic backlash could kill them. Packard is a highcap with unique psychological insight into everyone he meets and this allows him to see exactly how they can be broken down, or whether they can. He alone also seems immune to the "zings" of the various Disillusionists, allowing them to channel even when there isn't a suitable criminal that needs taking down. This allows him to show Justine just how good it can feel when she gets rid of her crazy health fears. She agrees to help him, as she is loving the normal life she is suddenly able to enjoy with her boyfriend, free of anxiety and stress, but she is only intending to do it short term, not comfortable with the moral implications of psychologically attacking people, even criminals.

Then she discovers that Packard is quite ruthless in achieving his goals. One of the other Disillusionists is surprised when Justine claims she's only part of their little team for a short while. It seems that once they start "zinging" others, their brain chemistry is gradually altered and if they suddenly stop, they're going to be overwhelmed by the very negative impulses they have gotten used to channelling and will end up in a vegetative state. Packard didn't tell Justine because he, very correctly, knew she'd never agree to join up if she knew. He isn't just destabilising criminals from the kindness of his heart, he makes a lot of money from people these criminals wronged, and his ultimate endgame is revenge against the individual who trapped him in the very restaurant Justine first met him. For more than eight years, Packard has been unable to leave the place. He's also unable to change the decor, or the menu and if things get destroyed, they're back the way they were before the very next day. Justine, who during her training has grown more and more attracted to Packard, is appalled and swears that she will figure out a way to be free of his manipulative control. She and the other Disillusionists can't really help themselves from trying to figure out exactly who trapped their boss, and how they can work together to free him.

In the second book, Double Cross, Justine and the other Disillusionists are working to rehabilitate a number of criminals that Packard's nemesis had kept locked away in various locations in the city, just like he had Packard. A trio of men nicknamed the Dorks (because former Chief of Police, now Mayor, Otto Sanchez, has forbidden the media from glorifying criminals with cool monikers, and all criminals written about in the media now have randomly selected humiliating names instead) are targeting highcaps, and mysteriously seem to be completely immune to all their powers, while able to identify them from normal humans. As both the men Justine feels drawn to are highcaps and thus in danger of being the next victim, she is feeling stressed and affected, even though she's able to channel her fears away. If Packard is killed by the Dorks, Justine and her dysfunctional friends will all eventually become drooling wrecks, so they work together to discover the true identies of the killers.

In the third book, Head Rush, Justine should be blissfully happy. She's finally free of Packard's control and doesn't have to channel her crippling fear into others to stay sane. She's attending nursing school (not just posing as a fake nurse like when she was a Disillusionist), she's engaged to the man of her dreams and the big hero of Midcity, planning the wedding of the year. Her best friends are going to be attending her at the wedding, so why is she plagued by constant headaches, vague nightmares, anxiety and an unsettling distrust for her beloved fiancee?

Midcity is under martial law, with a strict curfew being enforced because sleep-walking cannibals are roaming the streets at night. There are more dangerous criminals around than ever before, but Mayor Otto Sanchez is staunchly promising that things will change very soon. Thanks to the help of her reclusive, paranoid father and a few of her very loyal friends, Justine is able to unravel the mysteries surrounding her and figure out who her heart really belongs to.

Product warning from book three: This book contains high-speed rollerblade chases, a mysterious green dashboard ornament, a father of the bride in full hazmat gear and a delicious kebab. 

I read a lot of urban/paranormal fantasy, and finding something a bit different from your kickass heroine with a sword/crossbow/magical powers/shapeshifting/shiny daggers is very refreshing. Justine is a wreck, a self-absorbed, neurotic hypochondriac who constantly lies to herself about what she really wants from her life. She's not stupid, but certainly no genius. She's not exactly a coward, but she's certainly no action heroine. She's stubborn, quick to anger, quite often petty and very easily persuaded. Yet she's a loyal friend, she's not afraid to speak her mind and she quite naturally just wants a normal life and a reliable guy who loves her.

Neither of the two men that she falls for in this trilogy are exactly stable, reliable, trustworthy sort of people. They are childhood friends and long time enemies, sometimes working together, but more often to destroy one another. They are dangerous, ruthless, powerful and extremely manipulative. One of the things I liked about the series is how many times the status quo is completely turned on its head. You think you know what's going on, and then there is a surprise twist, and another, and a third, until you're really not sure who you should be rooting for. Who is the hero and who is the villain? Is it ok to completely destabilise and rewrite people's psyche to turn them from a life of crime? Is it ok to keep people under house arrest without any verdict or trial to protect the majority of the populace? Just how far can one person go to impose their unique idea of justice and order? While I'm really not a huge fan of love triangles, this one was very central to the plot of the series and the fact that the reader, as well as Justine, honestly doesn't entirely know who to trust, or who she should choose, makes for interesting reading.

I liked that all the various Disillusionists were severely screwed up individuals who would have been crazy or worse if they hadn't joined up with Packard and learned how to channel away the worst of their impulses into others. They all make for an interesting supporting cast of characters, although some are given a lot more prominence than others. I loved the idea that someone crippled by drug or alcohol addiction, or chronic gambling problems, or debilitating anxiety and hypochondria could transfer this to someone else, and use it as a weapon. It's such a very unusual idea and one of the reasons I really just dropped everything else to read these books. While by no means flawless, the books were different and extremely entertaining. I suspect I will be checking out what else Carolyn Crane has written, and I hope her other works are as fun as these books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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