Review: Dark Currents

[rape tw, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!]

I put off reading this book for a long time because I like to read books that I’m less excited about before I get to the books by my favourite authors. However, since my to-read pile continues to grow and it’s been that kind of week, I just decided to read something I was reasonably certain I would actually enjoy.

That book is Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey, one of my very favourite authors.

In the resort town of Pemkowet, residents make a brisk business off of supernatural tourism. Fairies frolic in the woods and fields, naiads and undines in lakes and rivers. There’s a brood of vampires and a reclusive werewolf clan. Your neighbour might be a brownie or a troll, and it’s all presided over by Hel.

Daisy Johanssen is Hel’s enforcer, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s up to her to mediate between the human and eldritch elements in Pemkowet, which involves working with the Pemkowet Police Department on unusual cases. When a boy drowns under mysterious circumstances and with the town’s tourism business at stake, Daisy must team up with her childhood crush to solve the mystery while keeping a tight leash on the darker side of her nature, or, well, Armageddon could happen, no big deal.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Dark Currents is the most generic urban fantasy on the planet. The cover is the most generic of generic covers (and what is with Daisy’s arms?) and the back of the book is standard urban fantasy stuff. Daisy certainly isn’t the first consultant who works with the police on behalf of the supernatural (here, they say eldritch) community. Like many other urban fantasy heroines, only one of her parents is in the picture (although, in this case, her dad is a demon who can only cross over to our world in special circumstances) and she has an unrequited crush on one of her co-workers, who happens to be a werewolf. Urban fantasy protagonists love werewolves.

However, unlike many urban fantasy heroines, she has good female friends and confidantes. In fact, Daisy is surrounded by awesome women. There’s her mother, whose loteria card reading drives the plot, her best gal pal Jen, Mrs. Browne, who owns the bakery below her apartment, her former babysitter, Lurine, retired starlet who also happens to be an ancient lamia, and the goddess Hel herself.  She has a great relationship with all of these characters, and even when her relationship with Jen is strained early on, Daisy admits that she’s the one at fault and owns up to her mistake. Carey does an amazing job of populating the town of Pemkowet with eccentric locals who may or may not be fully human. Lurine was probably my favourite of the bunch, a really old and powerful lamia who refers to Daisy as “cupcake” and talks clothes with her mother is believable in Carey’s hands. Each character felt like they could be someone I know, from the flamboyant owner of an occult shop to the frat boys to the rich conservatives going on about Satanism.

It wouldn’t be an urban fantasy without the presence of the fantastical, and Carey populates the town with a nice variety of beings: faeries, demons, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, undines, naiads, brownies, frost giants, and then there’s Hel herself, probably the most benign form of the goddess I’ve encountered in any recent media. For the most part, Carey seems to adhere more to traditional folklore where faeries aren’t very nice but can be persuaded to cooperate when given the right offerings (in fact, the fact that Daisy skimps on an offering is a plot point), although her ghouls (who don’t like to be called ghouls because it’s inaccurate) eat emotions rather than flesh. There’s an entire bestiary in this book and it all meshes with the mundane goings on of Pemkowet seamlessly.

Having read Carey’s other books, Daisy herself is a mix of Moirin and Imriel. Like Imriel, she grows up carrying some stigma associated with her parentage and spends much of the novel trying to be good, and especially avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins (which activate her demonic powers and cause things to explode and/or fly around the room) and like Moirin, she can’t seem to walk two feet without feeling a hint of desire for one man or another. A quick note, she describes her orientation as “mostly straight” when it comes to humans, but mentions that the eldritch community “has an entirely different Kinsey Scale” and seems more bothered by the fact that it would be weird sleeping with her babysitter than the fact that Lurine turns on the charm around her and nearly succumbs to a the seductive charms of a powerful female vampire, but most of the time you’ll be hearing about how hot all the men in her life are, and with three love interests, it gets really old really fast.

Speaking of love interests, there are three: Cody Fairfax, a werewolf who isn’t “out” to the community, and is a generally nice if closed off kind of guy, Stefan, a powerful, surprisingly philosophical ghoul who heads a biker gang and whose unique abilities have a calming effect on Daisy (who has particular trouble with Anger out of the Seven Deadly Sins), and “normal guy” Sinclair, a black guy from Kalamazoo who can see auras. Out of the three, Stefan is probably the most interesting to me. He’s the kind of character who would probably be unquestionably a villain in any other book, but in Carey’s hands he serves as a nice contrast to Daisy and her issues with Anger with his calm demeanor and heaping helpings of self-control. It’s easy to see some influence from Kushiel’s Avatar in Stefan, as it was one of the more philosophical of the Kushiel books. Sinclair is perhaps a bit problematic with his initial introduction, where he acts like a caricature of a Rastafarian, but it’s actually an act, and him and Daisy do discuss the Magical Negro trope, and how it’s basically bullshit. On the downside, Daisy refers to his skin as being the colour of cocoa, because I know how much POCs love it when white folks use food metaphors to describe skin!

(Yes that was sarcasm.)

Honestly I thought his act was really unnecessary, although it was nice to see the trope being discussed, but, I mean, white authors need to be careful with that shit as it’s too easy to mistake something like that for a serious portrayal.

I suppose up until this point my thoughts are that it’s not bad, that in some ways it’s a very typical urban fantasy with some really nice blending of the supernatural with the mundane, but now I have to get to the bad and ugly parts, so strap yourself in because this is going to be quite the ride.

Let’s start with the bad. Daisy has a tendency to use misogynistic slurs everywhere. I know it’s a pretty common thing in urban fantasy, but it’s honestly something I didn’t expect from someone like Daisy, who is literally surrounded by great women, and it just makes Daisy sound that much more juvenile. Basically I found it completely unnecessary and kind of silly, especially when an author like Carey could have easily invented fantastical insults to fling at, say, the naiads.

Now to the ugly. Spoilers are below the cut.

[MAJOR END OF BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD]

But you know what? I can deal with a little language, annoying as it is. What I really want to talk about is how this book treats rape and sex slavery, and this is where it gets really, really messy.

Firstly, Daisy is a child by rape. Carey’s approach to incubi, like faeries, is a bit more “traditional” in that sense (although her mother and her friends were messing with a Ouija board at the time) and it’s made clear that her mother wasn’t at fault the night Daisy was conceived. This is bad enough, but trust me, it only gets worse from here.

So basically, it turns out the victim drowned while attempting to rape a mermaid (after being told about it by the head of the fraternity who, yes, took his turn) who was being pimped out (via a website that essentially deals in eldritch sex-trafficking) by a couple of ghouls who were feeding off of her despair. The two ghouls involved are killed. The pimp is arrested. The students, well, the book doesn’t mention what exactly happens to the students. Daisy mentions rape charges, and then…..nothing….in fact, it’s explicitly said that they don’t think it’s worth charging them, and it’s also worth noting that the ringleader of the operation pleads guilty to assault and kidnapping, not, say, sex-trafficking. I should note that the legal status of the eldritch community is vague and apparently under dispute, but there’s really no excuse for not charging anyone with rape in this instance.

After spending time in her Terre D’Ange, where rape is not only a secular crime, but heresy, it’s really saddening to see this aspect of the book handled so horribly, with the rapist and would-be rapists only getting an implied comeuppance of the “they’ll have to live with it for the rest of their lives” variety, like WTF kind of ending is that? In the end, it felt like there wasn’t really any justice for the victim. At the very least, it would have helped to have just come right out and say something rather than just have Daisy chew out the parents of the kids and then just drop it.

[SPOILERS END HERE]

At the end of the day, Dark Currents does a great job of making the extraordinary seem ordinary, and is unfortunately bogged down by some really awful handling of rape, which, given how Carey’s other works have treated it, is just confuzzling to me. If the mystery had been about anyone else, this book would have been a great addition to the very crowded urban fantasy genre, but I find myself simultaneously intrigued by the world and baffled by the book’s callous treatment of rape and rape survivors, which seems so contrary to Carey’s other works.

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