Review – Thicker Than Water

From Hub_87, May 2009.

Up until October 2007 I’d never heard of Felix Castor, down-beat exorcist and detective on-the-side combined. I’d heard of Mike Carey, of course. He’s the bloke currently writing one of the X-Men comics, you see, my comfort zone. Then I heard Mike was going to be attending an event at Guildford Book Festival, regarding the future of fantasy in literature. Great stuff, thinks I, a chance to grill him regarding writing comics and how to get into the industry! I’m sure I’m not the only person to ever think this about meeting a successful writer but I might be one of the few to ever admit to it, though. Anyway, I shall now also admit, with my hand on my heart, that I picked up the first Felix Castor novel that night so that I had something other than my X-Men issue #200 for him to autograph. However, I began to read the novel later that night and I think I’d finished reading it within a week. I had already bought the second novel before finishing book one and, similarly, bought the third book before finishing book two. Such was my addiction once hooked; chain-reading. I’ve since had to wait about a year for book four, Thicker Than Water, to land on my doormat but I find I’m hooked once more.

But first a word or two for the uninitiated. Castor’s world is one in which the undead are very much apparent. Ghosts and spirits roam all over the place but not everyone can see them. Castor can because he’s sensitive to them and, as an exorcist, he can also project a certain amount of control over the undead. In Castor’s case this is through music or, more specifically, through playing his tin whistle. Apart from your bog-standard ghost, spirit or poltergeist, the undead also take the form of zombies and loup garous. Zombies are spirits who have exhorted control over a dead body, be it their own or someone else’s. Loup Garous are spirits that have exhorted control over an animal’s body, or bodies, with the animal fighting back for control almost constantly but far more prevalently during a full moon…

It’s easy to be hooked as Thicker Than Water starts off brilliantly and plunges you into the action. It begins with a fast paced, classy and, seemingly, well organised kidnapping of Felix Castor’s best friend, Rafi Ditko, from the Stanger Care Facility, the institute he’s been held captive in for the first three novels. I won’t be spoiling too much by saying this all goes swimmingly well but it’s what happens next that kicks this novel off properly as Castor is framed for murder. Having your name written in the victim’s own blood on his car windscreen can do that, you see?

Add to this the fact that the victim was a childhood acquaintance of Castor and his brother and the memories start to flow. But we don’t stop there. Throw into the mix the Anathemata, a rogue Catholic group with “End of Times” leanings towards the rising dead, and Castor’s brother Matthew, also a Catholic priest, along with the usual crew of Nicky the data gatherer (Zombie) and Juliet, another exorcist who also happens to be a (reformed?) Succubus who still has a contract on Castor from book one – but she’s one of the good guys now, people! Honest. Through an interesting, and violent, twist we’re introduced to a new character, Nurse Ryall, who I’m guessing might just be a romantic interest for Castor in future novels, but I could be being led purposefully down the wrong track, there.

Like in all good detective novels all the evidence you need is there, pointing towards who has done what and why, laid out for all to see… Well, you realise this at the time if you’re extremely observant or, for the rest of us, it all becomes clear as, bit by bit, the pieces fit together.

Is this the best Castor novel though, as I’ve heard others cry? Well, it certainly has its moments. It’s by far much pacier than the other novels. Mainly due, I think, to a certain lack, or reduction of, re-introductions to characters and places but Castor’s rolling monologue is still present. Carey’s eye for detail is just as keen, as is his expert ability at portraying and changing pace. Thicker Than Water comes across as an intensely personal novel. I can’t help feeling that the memories of Castor’s childhood and Mike Carey’s own could very well be one and the same – barring the ghosts and the exorcising of his own dead sister, maybe… However, like the Zen butcher when asked for his best piece of meat (Zen Koan #31, for the doubters…), it’s difficult to say Thicker Than Water is the best when comparing it to the other Castor novels. They all have their highs and lows but, overall, they’re all very good. Dark, witty, sarcastic, and that’s just the leading character! All the books have humour, all the books have violence, all the books have pathos, and Thicker Than Water is certainly no different.

Thicker Than Water left me hanging, heart thumping, for more. We’re teased with more background information on the whole mythos of Castor’s world, whilst also successfully dealing with the matters in hand, and we’re left firmly pointing towards the end of the tunnel… at least, I think we are. This time around my wait for the next book hopefully won’t be too long!