While at World Fantasy I had the pleasure to meet, and speak to, Mark Teppo. One of our friends, Kat Richardson, kept telling Steve and I that we had to meet him. She couldn’t say enough good things about him and his writing. So the search for the man began. After finally finding him, Steve and I both agreed that he was one of the coolest people at the convention, and we couldn’t wait to read LIGHTBREAKER (Amazon) his book. Conveniently, it was given to us for free while at the convention.
OK, confession time. (Admit it, you got nervous for a moment when I said that, didn’t you?) LIGHTBREAKER was published by Night Shade Books in 2008, and the sequel, HEARTLAND (Amazon) was published in 2009, so I’m a little bit behind the times on this. Other than the obvious fact that I got the book for free, I am reviewing LIGHTBREAKER, instead of it’s sequel, because it is the beginning of a fairly new series and I thought it would be a better place to start. Hey, I don’t need to explain myself to you. I do what I want.
From looking at the cover, despite thinking Mark Teppo was an awesome guy, I couldn’t help but think, “Ugh… ANOTHER Urban Fantasy. How long until the Vampires, Werewolves, and wise-cracking protagonists wear out their welcome in publishing?” The cover really doesn’t inspire confidence in the book at all, which is an aberration for Night Shade Books. Jeremy Lassen and Co., have great art design skills. But apparently they took the day off when it came to Mark’s book. Shame on them.
This book made me dizzy with all the preconceptions I had that were shattered. In fact I think that is the pivotal bit of information to enjoying this book. This is not your typical Urban Fantasy. LIGHTBREAKER is intelligent and densely written, showing off Mark’s incredible grasp on the English language. In fact it is so much so that at times it feels almost like a university professor teaching instead of a storyteller entertaining. This gave a very specific feeling of detail to the book, which was awesome. On the other hand, I got irritated in a few places were Mark went way overboard with similes and animal comparisons. In one paragraph, fairly early on in the book, every sentence compared one thing to some kind of animal. It felt ridiculous.
The main character was another expectation I got wrong here. He is not a happy dude. He has issues. I was expecting standard Urban Fantasy fare, with a protagonist that wins every fight, has a witty comment for every situation, and has an uncanny knack for solving every situation he faces, etc. (I’m not going to mention Harry Dresden specifically, but you get the idea… oh wait.) Markham is haunted by a past that we, the readers, only get hints about at first. But what we do know, and eventually learn by the end of the book is that this guy has had it pretty rough, and he has not come out of it emotionally unscathed. The first third of the book is about his thirst for revenge for having his soul stolen. Yeah, I’m not kidding. I’d hate to be this guy. This makes the story interesting, and the mystery of Markham’s past one I wanted showcased quickly, but it also made Markham kind of unengaged as a protagonist. He isn’t immediately likable.
Along those lines, the plot itself isn’t immediately engaging. I was well into the book (100-120 pages) before things actually started to pick up and move. This is even despite a long chase sequence at the beginning, and an explosive (literally) action scene. Once Mark starts to introduce the magic system a bit more and the politics associated with it, it became a LOT better. Then once the plot shifts from revenge to the big story of the novel it moved even faster.
Now, you may be asking, “What makes this worth picking up amidst the rest of the flooded Urban Fantasy market?” Well, in short, it’s different and it’s good. Oh, you want more? (Greedy….) Mark Teppo has blended a number of unused themes in his world-building to create bizarre, unique concepts that will grip you in their familiarity and exotic feel. He uses a mix of Qabalah, Judaeism, Christianity, Tarot, and Crowley to create the magic of his world. As someone who has studied, even if briefly, all of the above it was really entertaining seeing how he weaved the concepts from those into his own form and applied them to the novel. However, he uses terms from them relentlessly, again giving the feeling of a professor lording his knowledge over his students instead of imparting that wisdom, and never fully explains what any of them mean. All of the mysticism is mired in vagueness, and yet still manages to make sense in context. I’m not sure whether to applaud or scowl about it, but the fact is his descriptions of the mystical and ethereal border on genius.
At the forefront of the story is one of his creations called The Chorus, which is the weapon Markham uses. It is, essentially, a group of souls Markham has collected that he can manipulate into mystical attacks, wrap around his body to impart strength, or sense other magic. Oh, and they talk to him. Voices in his head. Yeah, I told you he has issues.
A big plot thread is the ability to steal souls, possess someone else’s body, and what follows when that happens. It was all very interesting but, hopefully without spoiling too much, the climax had a very Japanese anime feel to it. I think it got just a bit TOO big and a bit TOO cataclysmic. Also, with all the soul jumping, and body jacking there is a lot of need to describe a body without a soul. I think this is the book’s (or author’s) biggest failing. He uses the words “meat”, “meat-sack”, and their ilk so many times it starts to get really distracting. Like, a lot. Really a lot.
One other thing. Remember how I was snide about Vampires and Werewolves (I don’t share Steve’s acceptance of them, and am ready for the Vampire craze to be over)? Well they are absent. Yay! Time to celebrate. If it weren’t for the zombies I would have done the Nick Happy Dance. Even the zombies (which were the flavor of the year for 2009, and need a break) were pretty unique.
Will you like it? LIGHTBREAKER is a very smart book that stands out in a genre saturated with mediocrity. It has a very slow start, but is an exciting book to read once it gets going. There are too many unique ideas present in the novel to pass it up, if you are a fan of the genre. Like I said earlier, with the correct expectations for the book it will not only entertain but make you actually use that mind of yours.