The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Book Review: Mind Games and Double Cross by Carolyn Crane

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageLet’s say you’re an author.  You decide you want to write an urban fantasy book.  What would you do?  You’d probably come up with a heroine, someone kick ass and Amazonian who wears a lot of leather.  Then you’d decide which supernatural creature would be the primary focus of your story.  (Vampires are in right now, but werewolves are having such a creative resurgence–oh, the choices!)  Then you’d create your big bad, and he/she would be super-duper evil, someone who steals candy from babies and kicks puppies and everything.  Put them all together, and POOF!  Instant urban fantasy.

Of course, if you’re Carolyn Crane, you’d just ignore all of that and weave an exciting, awesome story that rocks even more BECAUSE it’s so different than everything else out there.  Her series, the Disilluionists Trilogy (book 1, Mind Games, came out in March, and book 2, Double Cross, came out a few weeks ago) has fast become one of my favorites, and the books easily hold their own against the best urban fantasies out there.

Our heroine, Justine Jones, is a hypochondriac, convinced that she is afflicted with vein star syndrome–a virtually undetectable condition in which a vein inside her head could rupture and kill her at any time.  Because of this, she is recruited by a man named Packard to join the Disillusionists–basically, a gang of neurotics that disillusions criminals by infecting them with their negativity.  Each of the Disillusionists has a specialty: grimness, anger, recklessness, ennui, etc.  As someone so stoked with fear she spends much of her time convinced she’s going to keel over at any moment, Justine fits in perfectly.  Packard teaches her to weaponize her fear, to “zing” it into other people.  For Justine, the benefits are immediate: without the fear, she can live the normal life she’s always longed for.  But doing so also forces her to live as Packard’s minion, dependent on him to tell her who she can zing and when.

Justine is the kind of heroine I simultaneously want to hug and strangle.  (We’d probably be friends in real life; this is often the reaction I have to them.)  For all of her neuroses, she’s really quite likable.  She sees the best in other people, and she genuinely wants to do the right thing.  She tries to help people when she can.  (In the beginning of Mind Games, she sees a man who had once conned her family out of a lot of money and warns the people he’s with.)  Although her fear is a big part of her life, she never lets it overtake her personality.  On the other hand, she is often utterly lacking in self-awareness, clinging to the fantasy of having a normal life, a normal job, and a normal boyfriend rather than figuring out what she really wants or needs.  It makes her frustrating at times, but it also makes her more realistic.  Often, urban fantasy authors get caught in the trap of making their heroines too kick-ass and aloof for most real women to relate to.  Justine’s kind of the opposite of that, a woman who makes the wrong choices as often as the right ones and who does her best to survive even when things get rough.  She’s often afraid, but her strength is in how she refuses to let these fears defeat her.

Packard serves as Justine’s counterpoint.  Whereas Justine sees people as they could be, Packard sees them as they are–literally.  As a highcap (a person who has a genetic mutations that gives him a special gift) who can see psychological structures, Packard understands how people’s insecurities and neuroses and fears cause them to act and react in predictable ways.  It’s what makes him uniquely suited to lead the Disillusionists: he can “read” a criminal and figure out which combination of Disillusionist “powers” will throw said criminal into a psychological tailspin.  He and Justine often go toe-to-toe over their clashing worldviews.  Naturally, they’re also insanely attracted to one another.  Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Justine is his minion, and he has the tendency to lie and manipulate her more often than not.  

The moral dilemmas are just as important to this story as the characters’ personal battles.  Should one person force another into servitude, even if it’s for his or her own good?  Is it right to force criminals into changing their ways by systematically destroying their psyches?  These questions are especially important in the second book, Double Cross.  Each of the characters has to grapple with them, and the answers are not always clear.  This is not a story about good guys and bad guys.  Crane revels in the gray area, and each of the characters must square themselves with their consciences in their own ways.

And then…well, I would be doing you a massive disservice to spoil it for you.  Let’s just say that Double Cross knocked me completely on my ass.  It left me on the edge of my seat, begging for more.  It made me scream (not literally, because I live in an apartment and my neighbors would complain).  It made me cry (yep, being literal on this one–and that’s not something I can say about many urban fantasy books).  It made me bite my fingernails more than usual.  (I’ve got NONE left now, which makes opening soda cans extraordinary difficult!)  It made me immediately want to re-read both books.  It left me saying, “You mean I have to wait until the NEXT book to find out what happens?  I don’t think I can take it!”

And then I read over on Carolyn Crane’s blog that the final book probably won’t be out until the second half of 2011.  (There were only six months between the releases of Mind Games and Double Cross.)  Cue righteous indignation: you mean I may have to wait A YEAR to find out what happens???

But it doesn’t matter, really: Justine and the Disillusionists are already so stuck in my head that it wouldn’t matter if I’d have to wait 10 years for the next book to come out; I’d still be waiting to get it in my hot little hands on release day.  (N.B.: Ms. Crane, if you’re reading this, I’d be really, really grateful it if you DIDN’t do that to me.  There’s cookies in it for you.  Thanks!)  I’m totally hooked.  I’m already anxious for the final installment, and I can’t wait to see what else Carolyn Crane has up her sleeve once this trilogy has ended.