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Blood Thinner Than Water

Harrison Squared - Daryl Gregory

I'm gonna go ahead and give this one 4 stars, purely out of respect for Gregory's impossibly awesome We Are All Completely Fine. On its own, I think it probably merits 3 or maybe 3.5. It is also hard to discuss without mentioning its predecessor, so I'm not even gonna freaking try. There be spoilers in these waters.


So here we have the origin story of Harrison Harrison, the paragon of paranoid badassitude introduced in WAACF. There are several things you'll have noticed if you, I don't know, read the cover blurb. The first is that, unlike the horror-lite fantasy of WAACF, this is firmly YA fare. That by itself is no bad thing. In fact, it's fitting, given Harrison's broken memory as an adult and the fact that his story had been (in-universe) recorded as a children's book. While this is not that book, I imagine a great deal of the adult Harrison's memory had been influenced by reading his own fictionalized tale, resulting in this account. The details (save for one) which differ between the stories don't really bother me because of that.


The second major thing is that unlike the ensemble cast of WAACF, the myth-cycle here rests solely on Harrison's shoulders. I would say that ought to make it more focused, but instead, it makes the narrative nebulous. That is the first problem I encountered. In WAACF, Harrison was the Lovecraft-expy, a Shadow Over Innsmouth survivor who battled fish people and a half-human monster called the Scrimshander, while the other characters represented separate horror sub-genres. While H2 makes no bones about its influences (particularly in its setting Dunnsmouth,) it pulls in other occult phenomenon, including the nature of ghosts, warring cults, and parasite-gods from across the Lovecraftian spectrum. In doing so, it attempts to jam every Cthulhid aspect into Harrison's story, rather than allow multiple narratives to meet in the ensemble-style. Suffice it to say, shit gets real messy. 


That said, the book has strengths. Gregory can pull off YA, and when blending school-days narratives with Hardy Boys hunts, the plot flows as if from a fresh wound. The figures within the local high school as sick, twisted, beautiful riffs on Roald Dahl (also, Nurse Mandi?! What the fuck?!) and the first half of the book centers on them, so for that long I was content. The teachers are psychos, the students are Addams Family rejects, the lunch is alive, PE takes place in a subterranean lagoon, and you absolutely will stay the fuck out of the library. The problem is that so much of the book takes place outside of the school that these episodes seem brief and inconsequential.


Another strength is Gregory's talent with monsters. There is seriously some gnarly shit going on here, from colossal squid deities, to half-human freaks, to things that Lovecraft himself would have called "squamous as bugfuck." Again, this does serve as something of a double-edged sword, as some of these things get humanized to the point of, well, not being scary (the Dwellers are of particular note here.) Which brings me to my three biggest trouble spots with this book:


1) The ending. Yes, I know this is a YA book, and the sort of chaotic, throw-in-every-character battle is expected. I was really hoping, however, that it might be averted to make something unique. Now, I'm not talking about the cliff-hanger/teaser epilogue, which redeemed a few matters by suggesting, if not promising, future closure in some volume that completes the cycle. But the big throw-down, in which everyone showed up but very few actually did anything, just fell flat for me. Sorry.


2) Lub. Or as I thought of him, Lub Ex Machina. Seriously, this guy might have been interesting, but mostly he showed up when Harrison needed something magically done elsewhere. Further, his info dump pretty much ensured there was little tension for the last half of the book, since we already knew most of what was going down. Again, sorry (but not really.)


3) The Scrimshander. Oh, that bastard. You see, for those of you who haven't read WAACF (and if so, why the hell are you reading this? I said there were spoilers, goddamnit,) the Scrimshander was one of the most terrifying things in the book and he never even showed up! He was all backstory, and yet he was more effective than anything else in the book. Even after Harrison said he'd been killed (rather gruesomely, too, in a way that doesn't appear in this novel, probably because you can't put that shit in a kid's book,) the Scrimshander was the stone-cold nemesis of all that is good and natural. This versions was... meh. He was certainly someone to be reckoned with, but he wasn't frightening. Even his scrimshaw work, which was brick-shittingly terrifying in previous mentions, was downgraded to the standard villain hobby of victim-collecting. The fact that he didn't even show up until halfway thought, with an introduction so flat it felt like a Scooby-Doo baddie had just slipped on his mask, made him less than a credible threat.  


I realize it appears I'm only complaining about a book I'm giving 4 stars. That's because I am complaining. I wanted 5 stars again, a lean, mean, frightening book, and what I got was an occasionally concise but often fuzzy, fluffy read that wore its influences a little too plainly. If the Harrison Harrison of WAACF is to be believed, the book about his childhood wasn't that good, so maybe this is that book. The trouble is that, for what it is, Harrison Squared is pretty decent. It's just not the out-of-the-park brain crusher of We Are All Completely Fine, and it suffers from the (necessary) comparison. I know one thing for certain: it's going to need a sequel to redeem it.












(Note: also, the fact that Lub not only turned out to be 100% benevolvent, but absolutely not the fishy alter-ego of Lydia, is complete bullshit. Fuck obviousness, Harrison needed a Dweller girlfriend, yo.)