Book Review: 'Doubletake' by Rob Thurman


During Women in Horror Month, I got a chance to interview Robyn Thurman, one of my new favorite genre authors, just before the debut of her latest release Doubletake. The novel is the seventh installment in the popular Cal Leandros series, a monster-filled action saga revolving around the bloody adventures of two unusual siblings: Caliban "Cal" Leandros, a surly, gun-toting crossbreed of human and demon; and his brother Niko, who's fully human but possesses mad martial arts skills and incredible self-control. Like its predecessors, Doubletake is a lightning-paced fusion of Lovecraftian world-building, caustic humor in the style of Harlan Ellison (A Boy and His Dog), and enough gory pulp action to fill a couple of Kill Bill sequels. After going back through the series to refresh my knowledge of Leandros lore, I finally tore through the new tale and I'm ready to bring you up to speed, in as spoiler-free a manner as possible. Read on!

Let's take the thousand-foot view first: our protagonist is not what you'd call a good guy. Initially robbed of his memories and driven to a dangerous deal to correct the situation, Cal is literally living on borrowed time, with his soul in hock to a race of deadly, dimension-hopping demons called the Auphe. Hiring himself out from his home turf in Manhattan to put the hurt on various monsters that live alongside humankind (often unnoticed), he's a more bitter, sociopathic and violent antihero than Snake Plissken, and detests nearly everyone (often including himself) in this world and the worlds and ages beyond... everyone, that is, but Niko. Even then, Cal tends to be hugely annoyed with his Zen master sibling more often than not.

Nevertheless, the bond between brothers is the backbone of the entire series, even when Cal's demon blood boils and drives the wedge even further between himself and the rest of the universe. A true sociopath, Cal lacks a conscience at first, but with some expert help he can control many of his impulses (you fans of Dexter know how this works), and that's where Niko comes in. Family dynamics can be tricky enough in the real world, but when part of your brother's identity is intimately tied to a race of super-demons that scare the hell out of all the other monsters (and there are lots of creepy monsters in this series), issues with your relatives are going to be a little stranger than usual.

It's not just Cal's kindred with issues this time: among the many species of supernatural beings that populate this world, there's the charmingly conniving Robin Goodfellow – whose name you may remember as "Puck" from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream – just one member of a pansexual demigod race, all identical and probably immortal. Robin has made several memorable appearances throughout the series, but in this installment he's central to much of the action, as his fellow Pucks are gathering for one hell of a reunion – an occasion which takes place every thousand years. He enlists the aid of the Leandros brothers for an assignment that involves them in more ways than they realize at first, and as you can probably predict, the gig goes very weird. But they ain't seen the worst of it by a long shot, because their own family dramas make Robin's seem tame by comparison... and believe me, that's saying a lot.

In this tale, Thurman finally pulls back the curtain on some seriously twisted Leandros secrets, many of which were hinted at in the previous novels, others coming completely out of nowhere. The result is not pretty, especially when it comes to Niko's father – whose haunted past has quite literally become too big to contain – and a runaway mecha monstrosity that could rain down Godzilla-style destruction. Add to that another human/Auphe half-breed – the black sheep of an already deranged bloodline – who personifies the deepest and darkest of Cal's inner demons (again, that's totally not a metaphor), and even the iron bond between brothers may be put to the ultimate test.

From the beginning of the series, the relationship between Cal and Niko has always been depicted as deeper than just your basic buddy-cop comic bromance; the dramatic undercurrents have been there, often depicted through Cal's narrative (the novels are mainly written in first person), and flashbacks to the brothers' troubled youth. But in Doubletake, the depth of their loyalty to one another is laid bare... which serves the story well, because in this case that loyalty may ultimately be in jeopardy.

Thurman's fans share much of the same fierce devotion to the author as her two main characters have for each other, and having finally traced the series' many story arcs, I can understand their lust for each upcoming installment. Some secondary characters seem at first to just enrich the texture of Thurman's world-building and/or provide comic relief (one of my favorites is an arrogant, psychopathic cat-mummy), only to become essential elements of the story as the plot bubbles and story currents shift. That being said, Doubletake puts more emotional weight on the brothers' shoulders than all their previous misadventures, and while Thurman's dark humor runs rampant (occasionally to excess) and the blood & monster splooge spew like geysers, this book is really a drama at heart, and a surprisingly touching one... albeit with an extreme body count.

If you're new to these books, I'd highly recommend picking up the opening novel Nightlife first; otherwise you'll get totally lost among the Tarantino-like interlocking plotlines that follow (I had to backtrack to earlier books for reference a few times myself). But I'm thinking by the end of book one, you'll race on to devour the others and catch up to this entry, which I'd consider one of the strongest in an already addictive series.

Check out this Blade Runner-style trailer for Doubletake, featuring all of the series' main characters, book covers and some interesting Easter eggs for the fans...