Madhouse, by Rob Thurman

By Catherine Cheek

If you want to read about tough guys killing monsters, Madhouse, by Rob Thurman is your book. Half-human Cal and his brother Niko are so tough they make Bruce Willis’s character from the Die Hard movies seem like a hemophiliac asthmatic with a gimp knee. With their friend Robin, and Niko’s vampire girlfriend Promise, they take down a veritable zoo of mythological creatures in a dark and twisted New York.

The story starts with Cal and his brother Niko being hired by a vampire to find the vampire’s lamia girlfriend, who has been kidnapped. The lamia is a bloodsucking leech of a monster, who was presumably also a hottie before she got devoured. They find the lamia dead, along with a slew of human victims, but they’re not sure who, or what, did it. A curator from the Met wants them to find a missing exhibit, and they learn that the exhibit is actually the famous mass murderer Sawney Beane. The inhuman Sawney is loose on a killing spree in the city and it’s up to Cal and Niko to stop him.

Cal, Niko and Robin make a nice triumvirate. Cal is the angsty wunderkind afraid of emotionally connecting with people because he fears his non-human side (and his non-human relatives). Niko is the wise mentor and teacher, who trains Cal, forces him to stay on task, and occasionally provides moral guidance. Robin is a wiseacre playboy, a nearly immortal puck with a past of his own, a past which starts to catch up with them as they realize that someone has put out a contract on Robin’s life.

When Robin gets hurt, Cal has a little soul-searching about what it means to have friends. Actually caring for people is something new for him, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He visits his sweetly perfect love-interest, Georgina, about whom he is also conflicted. He adores her, but he wants to protect her by staying away from her. She rightly points out how dumb that is, but as she’s the girl and he’s the hero, he gets to be self-sacrificing and walk away. After a little ruminating on how crappy his love life is, and a brief side-plot in which Robin helps Cal get laid, it’s back to killing monsters.

The three of them track Sawney down by looking for the stench of victims. They find Sawney, and a pack of revenants, and get in a knock-down, drag-out fight. After Sawney escapes, the heroes go home to lick their wounds and plan the next attack. They decide they need allies, so they recruit an ugly monster and a beautiful monster. The second time they do a little better, but Sawney gets away again. While they’re planning their third attack, Robin’s assassin makes another attempt. Cal takes a break from hunting down Sawney to find out what his friend’s deep dark secret is. Then they gather forces and gear up for the showdown. Eventually they unravel the story behind the assassination plot, and manage to put Sawney down for good.

Madhousedoesn’t pretend to be anything other than a dark, supernatural action tale. It reminded me of Laurel Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, except without all the explicit kinky sex. (There’s sex in this, but it’s not explicit and it’s not that kinky.) The tale is very noir, because even when they’re slaying monsters in whatever brutal fashion they need to they look good doing it. The women are either monsters, or beautiful, or both, and nearly every character can hold his or her own in a fight. Sometimes this was taken to ridiculous extremes; for example, when Robin is cowed and respectful of the fighting capabilities of his gorgeous midget housekeeper.

Normal humans were in short supply. Georgina is nominally human, though she’s psychic, and Niko was described as a (remarkably sturdy) human, but I didn’t buy that any more than I bought he was twenty two years old. Even a NPC who steps forward just long enough to give them information about their quest is a healing spirit rather than a human. Except for an assassin, the humans were all bystanders or victims. Most of the time, they didn’t even say anything. Monsters are running around slaughtering people, and the humans either run, or die, or stare at the monsters obliviously. It made it hard to care about them.

In one scene, Cal picks up a dead little girl’s barrette as a reminder of why it’s important that he kills Sawney soon, and in another scene he does the same with an engagement ring, but we never see the relatives of the deceased pleading with Cal to stop the killer, and we never see the cops scratching their heads in frustration. The scenery of New York is there, (especially the sewers) but it feels curiously unpopulated.

Except for a small continuity error (Cal uses a gun he lost in an earlier scene) the only flaw with this book was that when it veered away from the action and into Cal’s internal thoughts the pace of the story crawled. He has a sardonic and wisecracking inner monologue which is usually quite entertaining but occasionally runs on a bit long, as does Robin’s crude and descriptive banter. There’s more than a little vulgarity, but if explicit descriptions of flayed corpses and violent battles don’t turn you off, the f-bombs won’t either.

Because Madhouseis the third of a series, the book deals with loose threads from the earlier books. Thurman gives enough backstory that you don’t wonder what’s going on, but sometimes he goes a little too far and it gets in the way. For example, Cal worries constantly about his Auphe (a kind of monster) relatives coming back and causing trouble. He gets criticized for looking ‘too Auphe’ for having Auphe blood, and for using Auphe abilities. If I’d read the first two books, I might have appreciated the follow-through, but I didn’t know it was the third of a series until I opened it. Since the Auphe have nothing to do with the plot in this book, for me, explaining everything that happened in previous books bogged the story down unnecessarily.

Still, once it gets back to tough guys killing monsters, it’s a ripping yarn. It’s also great that Cal and Niko don’t just slay demons or stake vamps. Thurman manages to keep werewolves from being boring, and while his vampires are nothing special, he doesn’t hang the story on them. Most importantly, there are also monsters even a well-read folklore fan hasn’t heard of. Thurman either did some heavy research into mythology, or he’s creative enough to make us believe he has. The action scenes are tight, gory, and tense. Because no one is average, only gorgeous or hideous, and because the city is so grandly dark, Madhousehas a gothic atmosphere. That, along with the over-the-top violence and action, will please a lot of horror fans.

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