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Book Review: Head Rush by Carolyn Crane

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

 Since I finished reading Double Cross, the second book in Carolyn Crane’s Disillusionists Trilogy, last year, Head Rush has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2011.  For over a year, I waited anxiously, sometimes impatiently.

Let me tell you, Head Rush was well worth the wait.

The description, courtesy of the Samhain Publishing website:

In an attempt to put her unhappy past behind her, Justine Jones throws herself into nursing school and planning her wedding to Otto Sanchez, the man of her dreams. But something is off. Random details aren’t adding up…and is it her imagination, or are her friends and fiancé keeping secrets from her? And what’s with the strange sense of unease, and her odd new headaches?

Justine tries to stay upbeat as Midcity cowers under martial law, sleepwalking cannibals, and a mysterious rash of paranormal copycat violence, but her search for answers leads her into the most dangerous mind game yet.

With the help of unlikely allies, including her paranoid dad and best frenemy Simon, Justine fights her ultimate foe…and unravels the most startling mystery of all.

First things first: I don’t recommend reading this book unless you’ve read the first two in the trilogy—Mind Games and Double Cross—first.  Crane’s world is a well-developed and complex one, and this book definitely assumes knowledge of that world, and of the story that was built in the first two books.

That said, though, I’m going to try to keep this review as unspoilery as possible.

In the first two books, we met Justine Jones, a hypochondriac with a fear of Vein Star Syndrome (a nearly impossible-to-detect disease that basically involves a blood vessel bursting in the brain).  She meets Sterling Packard, who approaches her with a Faustian proposition: become a member of the Disillusionists, a group of individuals who “zing” their negative feelings and neuroses into criminals to disillusion and reform them.  Packard himself is a highcap, a high-capacity human with special abilities; in his case, the ability to see people’s psychological structures.  The attraction between Packard and Justine is immense and immediate.  But then, through her work as a Disillusionist, she meets Otto Sanchez, the police chief of Midcity who shares her Vein Star paranoia—not to mention Packard’s archenemy.

At the beginning of Head Rush, it’s just days before Otto and Justine’s wedding, and Justine keeps getting the feeling that something’s…off.  Things aren’t quite adding up, and she thinks that her friends might be keeping things for her.  Not to mention the fact that she can’t get Packard out of her head.  This part of the story was frustrating for me as a reader because—having read Double Cross—I knew some things that Justine didn’t know.  I was torn between feeling sorry for her and wanting to shake her.

But the story picks up pace as Justine starts to figure out what happened.  As a Disillusionist, Justine often fooled her targets into believing she was someone or something she was not.  In Head Rush, she must fool the people closest to her.  The danger and emotional tension are high throughout the story.

One of the Crane’s strengths as a writer is her ability to create complex, multi-faceted characters who don’t really fit into definite “good” or “bad” categories, and nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the character of Otto Sanchez.  This is Otto’s book for me.  At times an ally, at times an antagonist, Otto’s role in the story has never been straightforward. This is the book where we finally figure out what Otto is really made of, what has been motivating his actions—and yet, by the end of the book, it is less clear than ever whether we should think of Otto as a good guy or a bad guy.  In the Disillusionists’ world, things are rarely that simple.

As for Justine…this is the book where Justine really comes into her own and discovers her inner strength.  I’ve always loved Justine as a character.  With her overwhelming hypochondria, Justine could have been a one-note character dominated by her fear.  Instead, Justine has always strived to do the right thing in spite of her fear, and thus became the moral center of the crazy universe Crane created.  Just as this is the book where the readers figured out what Otto was made of, this is also the book where Justine herself figured out what she was made of.  Justine may not be the weapon-wielding, ass-kicking heroine you often find in urban fantasy (and maybe she’s more relatable because she’s not), but she’s still a very strong character in her own right.  Her journey has been both profound and subtle.

The Disillusionists trilogy has been one of my favorite urban fantasy series…and my only complaint is that it’s over.