It rained toads the day the White Council came to town.
I’ve generally liked the openings of the books and this marks a sharp change in that.
Last book’s bit about phases of the moon was similarly a gesture toward the cliche and familiar magical elements, but “I never used to” is a twist that tells you some shit went down and if you stick around you can find out what. This is just a vague bit of weirdness. Toads aren’t even all that horrifying to people in the modern day – raining tarantulas would probably better fit how people should feel about a rain of witchy animals, and making it venomous snakes would give some actual reason why this is worth being upset about. It’s further undermined by the fact the White Council is a name outright designed to sound generically goodish, so if they’re showing up at the same time, then even if magic witchy toads are somehow a big deal, well, a bunch of good wizards are there to resolve it.
Even as I watched, several more amphibians plopped out of the sky, as though the Almighty had dropped them down a laundry chute.
The other issue is that rains of frogs can actually happen – you can get storms sucking up small critters and then dropping them back down somewhere far off. It really doesn’t require the almighty or even the demi-almighty that are wizards. Now, if Harry was capable of remembering Shadowpants, blessed be his industrious name, the fact the easiest way to produce this rather underwhelming ill omen is through storm magic might matter slightly, and even there, figuring out you can use storms for completely unrelated supermagic is a way bigger deal than someone making a storm do something unusual but largely harmless. At this point the biggest concern is the wellbeing of the toads.
I looked up to see a short young man with broad shoulders and a confident walk coming toward me. Billy the Werewolf wore sweatpants and a plain dark T-shirt. A year or two ago the outfit would have concealed the forty or fifty extra pounds he’d been carrying. Now they concealed all the muscle he’d traded it in for.
Remember the werewolves, and how you thought, “Okay, Terra and the rest are great and all, but what’s really important to me is if this random dude Harry thinks is okay but not adulty-cool enough becomes more badass, so I can live vicariously through Harry’s alpha approval.” Remember that? How that’s definitely the only real takeaway besides that all women are bitches lol? Luckily so does the author so hey, Billy, boy I sure fucking cared about him last time thank god he’s back and I’m so glad the guy who deals with his problems by being a giant wolf is now also good in a regular fistfight, that’s not boring and redundant at all.
Anyway, so Billy’s running the pack because that is totally how both humans and wolves work. We get him doing a lot of exposition:
1) Previous books. If you don’t remember, hold onto that for as long as you can.
2) How fucking awesome yet nobly depressed Harry is and they should hang out more plz buddy you’re just so cool.
3) HE HASN’T EVEN FUCKING TOLD PEOPLE ABOUT SUSAN JFC HARRY.
Just take my word it’s awful and we’re going to be skipping around that.
Let’s just talk about the froggies. Not that that’s much better.
They said that they were having tornadoes in Louisiana or something, that the storms must have thrown the toads here.”
I snorted. “You’d think ‘it’s magic’ would be easier to swallow than that.”
Billy grinned. “Don’t worry. I’m sure someone will come along and declare it a hoax before long.”
See, there’s an enormous gulf between “magical things get covered up with mundane explanations like gas leaks” and “what sort of fucking moron believes gas leaks are real? LOL!”
This sort of gets into America’s weird persecution complexes, where the problem is elitist scientists pretending they know more than you and also btw Christianity is objectively true. The very fact something’s an acceptable target usually points to them not actually being half as in control as anyone claims.
Now, this was published in 2002, so you could argue things were nowhere near as bad back then, but I’d say this is exactly why everything is so fucked up these days. Does the author support anti-vax flat earth creationism etc? Probably not. But it didn’t matter to him. He smugly takes the position that everyone who believes in anything is the real loser, confident that he’ll be insulated from any consequences of that. People who believe in magic are idiots Harry knows better than, people who believe in science are also idiots Harry knows better than, and maturity is about saying both sides are equally stupid and all that matters is holding onto your fence-straddling superiority.
Harry, ironically, then attempts to do a science: he tells Billy to help him collect some toads to figure out if they’re real.
it’s possible that they’re just constructs. Made out of the material of the Nevernever and animated by magic. I hope they are.”
“Because all that would mean is that some faerie got bored and played a trick. They do that sometimes.”
“Okay. But if they’re real?”
“If they’re real, then it means something is out of whack.”
“What kind of out of whack?”
“The serious kind. Holes in the fabric of reality.”
Like, even if we assume tornadoes can’t naturally pick up and drop things, are we to also believe it’s impossible to use magic to manipulate them to do that? If reality just got torn in half, I think it’d have more to offer than the same toads as already exist in our world, and also I don’t see why it’d be specifically picking up small light animals easily pulled into the sky instead of completely random ones. When Night Vale introduced a glowing cloud dropping dead animals, they sure didn’t say, “But naturally it’s only fish and frogs and other creatures that could plausibly be sucked up by a storm, because why should a magic impossible thing be interesting?” No, they promptly had it drop a lion.
Also, just…a fairy did all this, created physically real objects in the real world that can really hurt people (Harry had one drop on his head) and that’s no big deal? What if they did daggers instead? Or, again, venomous snakes? Or, if I’m to take it as a law of the universe that only frogs can be dropped, what about poison dart frogs, at least? Surely there’s something you could use that’d actually matter?
Then Billy starts telling him about their D&d game because he’s cool but not too cool, you know? Not as cool as Harry, who lives all of that all day long.
Word is that the Reds are bringing more muscle into town. That they’re offering their groupies full vampirehood if one of them brings you down.”
I mean, Harry supposedly can’t murder humans, so I guess using humans would be a smart move, but that’d rely on the idea the White Council actually enforces its rules and with each book that seems more unlikely. Putting the pieces together, I’d say Harry’s real issue was that he was a half-trained kid (not valuable and not able to put up a fight) and he killed one of them, ie, an actual person.
Besides…just gob some vampire spit at Harry and he should be fucked up enough to finish off. Harry generally doesn’t die only because he’s not killed, you know? The one proper noir bit of this is that Harry does in fact get the shit beaten out of him semi-regularly, so aim for that but just stop wandering away after his ass has been kicked.
Oh, also it’s noir, so Harry’s about to be evicted because he hasn’t paid the rent. Interestingly, it doesn’t actually bother claiming Harry can’t pay this time, he could as easily not know/care about his office by now.
So Harry is ranting about how his life sucks and he’s lone-wolfing it because everyone else sucks too much and then the vampire hit happens, which, yeah obviously as soon as you say he’s going to get attacked in broad daylight it’ll happen.
Really, I think a big chunk of the problem here is that the author had a pretty clear idea what the first one was supposed to be, kludged the next two together out of his remaining ideas, and now he’s suddenly stuck churning out words because it turns out this is a series.
Given Harry is shouty and antagonistic, instead of Billy explaining everything and going on about how great Harry is, he could show up and be actually blown off by Harry, instead of “blown off” in a way that doesn’t impede him singing the guy’s praises for ages. If all he managed was “hey, vampire problem” in the middle of the day, it’d be a surprise when Harry gets attacked, and then he could say that’s what he’s trying to explain, the vampires have called in non-vampire help. This could also open up some more natural exposition where Harry could justify his lack of socializing as being partly about turtling up in his house all night every night.
It wasn’t subtle, as attempted assassinations go. An engine roared and a black compact pickup truck jumped the curb into the park fifty yards away. It jounced and slewed to one side, tires digging up furrows in the sunbaked grass. A pair of men clung to a roll bar in the back of the truck. They were dressed all in black, complete with black sunglasses over black ski masks, and their guns matched— automatic weapons in the mini-Uzi tradition.
THIS IS STUPID
So fucking stupid.
1) Vampires know guns vs wizards is a bad move. If they somehow forgot, Bianca specifically tried and failed on guns last book so they definitely remember now.
2) Harry will drink absolutely anything you hand him even when it’s “wine” in the middle of a vampire party of the specific type of vampire that drug their prey hosted by someone who hates him. What the fuck more does he need to do, tattoo “please poison me please” on his forehead?
3) As he will not fucking shut up about, he has this whole “chivalry” thing. We know the Red Court evidently can’t pick up on his specific kinks but they shouldn’t need to. Harry’s supposed interest and his actual interest overlap enough that a honeypot-then-stab plan would work fine. If nothing else, he’ll just stare like a creeper at exposed female flesh long enough that you can probably just stab him from behind.
4) Harry also got his ass handed to him by rage-soul “lycanthropes” so like, just hire them? Seriously, he doesn’t have a great track record against supernatural creatures in general.
5) Demon-summoning. You’re evil, get some mileage out of that. Throw a demon at him, watch him panic and blow it up with all his power because that’s how he rolls, wait for him to dramatically collapse, coup de grace. Possible bonus, the White Council assumed he summoned demons before and “haha no it wasn’t us he got killed fucking up a demon summoning no need for followup” might be the kind of face-saving they’d accept.
None of this happens. Instead he shield-bracelets the bullets, because I guess he’s completely over his jewelry hangup. Baby steps away from toxic masculinity, I guess.
With all the fire discipline of an action-movie extra
Also, just a reminder, he shouldn’t be able to watch TV or movies.
The reason this annoys me so much is that this goes beyond him having a passing familiarity. Harry talks about real life in the vocabulary of movies constantly, in the way of someone both absolutely immersed in it and who has no personal experiences to draw on. He may have postured at Billy about how he doesn’t need D&D when he sees monsters IN REAL LIFE, but going by his narration his actual point of reference for not just monsters but everything is what he’s seen on a TV screen.
He’s also got a ring that collects kinetic energy from the motion of just swinging his arms as he walks. This is one of those things that sounds clever on first pass, using magic to hack/redirect physics in a new way, but on second, doesn’t actually line up at all with how magic’s worked before. Magic is supposed to require energy from the caster and that’s its limiting factor, not subtle tweaks to reality that you can with cleverness create something overpowered. Here, Harry appears to have been able to make something that can gather a charge indefinitely. He’s only using it to store/release kinetic energy, but we know from the storms that energy is energy so that’s probably down to how Harry is unimaginative and boring. If you can make a ring that charges up from moving it, you’ve mechanized magic to a degree that Shadowpants, blessed be his industrious name, would find shocking.
Harry, of course, is more interested in telling us that oh no, his magic ring of punching is so incredibly strong he could kill someone by accident:
that would be basically the same as letting them fill me full of bullets. It would just take a little longer to set in. The White Council did not take kindly to anyone violating the First Law of Magic: Thou Shalt Not Kill. I’d slipped it once on a technicality, but it wouldn’t happen again.
And then you slipped by many more times on the different technicality that you can slaughter hundreds so long as they’re not human.
I wonder if there’s any reason Harry keeps stating it’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and not “Thou Shalt Not Kill Humans”?
It could be purely that it’s considered so obviously true that only humans matter that it just struck the author as redundant, but… I’ve seen plenty of other fiction that gives humans this kind of privileged position that doesn’t hesitate to specify humans. Were they all, to at least some degree, aware of the potential unfairness to it? Did even the ones that played the human/evil monster divide quite straight still allow for the possibility of monsters that did not deserve to die, even if they were not willing to go so far as to think this should grant them any protection, even if they were not even interested in ever showing such monsters at all?
The thing about these books is, much more than most of the media I encounter, are terrifically self-centered. People matter when the spotlight of Harry’s attention swings to them but there is no broader anything going on. And we know that Harry, faced with a nonhuman, reacts the same way whether they’re trying to kill him or saving his life out of love for another human: “I can kill that! FUCK YES SOMETHING I CAN KILL!”
Perhaps it’s odd is that he draws any line. The media I can think of that shows real glee in monster killing tends not to fuss about killing in general – evil humans are shot beside the monsters they serve. But then, ever since the first book when Harry seemed honestly repulsed by the idea of harming anyone by magic, the law seems to only come up when it’s Harry whining about how people are so mean expecting him to follow the rules, so… perhaps that does fit well.
Anyway, Harry blasts them and the incredible force knocks off one of their ski masks without harming the guy’s face, somehow, I guess because Harry knocking them over and then bothering to pull off the mask to see who he was dealing with wasn’t an option? I guess it does feel kind of OOC for Harry to willingly interact with the environment around him instead of just throwing magic and then a coincidence telling him the next piece of the puzzle.
revealing him to be a plain-looking boy who couldn’t have been old enough to vote.
Harry has apparently completely repressed his time at Bianca’s party because the idea the vampires would use teenagers is something he feels shocked and outraged about.
While Harry’s distracted with the “movie extras”, another movie trope triggers, this time an old lady with a shopping basket turns out to be a young woman hiding a gun waiting in plain sight for the attack to begin.
Harry then attempts to claim that oh no that gun is dangerous because his shield spell only works in one direction, despite it being a bubble every time before, so his flank is completely exposed, and also he can’t do anything besides the shield spell at a time so he can’t light her on fire either, and ALSO somehow there’s no chance the guns involve will jam or explode instead of shooting him. (It would, incidentally, have been a very interesting detail if this entire fight was taking place with ridiculously old-fashioned guns.)
Billy moved. He had already gotten out of his T-shirt, and he had enough muscle to ripple—flat, hard muscle, athlete’s muscle, not the carefully sculpted build of weight lifters.
Ripple flat no squish muscle is absolutely carefully sculpted. Take a hint from the animal kingdom and get some padding if you’re actually getting into fights, and then take another five hints if you’re a shapeshifter who probably could use the spare mass in a bid to jam your inevitable wounds shut before you bleed out.
And luckily for the whole no-killing-humans thing, when Billy tries to bite the shotgun off her it turns out she’s not human.
Her hands distended, lengthening, as did her shoulders and her jaw. Her nails became ugly, ragged talons, and she raked them down at Billy, striking him across the jaw, this time eliciting a pained yelp mixed with a snarl. He rolled to one side and came up on his feet, circling in order to force the woman-thing’s back to me.
her distorted features furious, mouth drooling around tusklike fangs.
I pointed the gun at her belly and pulled the trigger.
Well. That sure was exactly how this always goes.
The woman doubled over, letting out a shriek, and stumbled backward and to the ground. She wasn’t down long. She almost bounced back to her feet, scarlet splashed all over her rag of a dress, her face wholly inhuman now.
1) I am honest to god happy she survived, and I hope she doesn’t get killed later.
2) Have male monsters been described as having inhuman faces? It’s definitely come up a lot with women but I can’t recall if men don’t get that phrase at all or if it’s just rarer. Either way, given it’s Harry, we unfortunately have no idea if she actually had an inhuman face or if she just made an expression outside the Approved Zone of female faces and Harry lost his shit.
I lowered the shotgun, realizing as I did that I had somehow managed to keep hold of the toad I had picked up in my left hand. It wriggled and struggled in a fashion that suggested I had been close to crushing it, and I tried to ease up on my grip without losing it.
I will say I appreciate this detail – both the toad being forgotten in all that was going on, and that Harry, upon realizing he’s hurting it, attempts to stop.
A nicer person would probably have just let go upon seeing they were hurting an innocent animal since it’s not like he even needs that particular one, but, at least he’s trying at all.
The wolf paced back over to his discarded sweatpants, shimmered for a second, and became once more the naked young man. There were two long cuts on his face, parallel with his jaw. Blood ran down over his throat in a fine sheet. He carried himself tensely, but it was the only indication he gave of the pain.
I am also mildly curious how things will go now that the book has to deal with the fact its rules for shapeshifters are that they get naked but its misogyny means the female shapeshifters have been sidelined. So far, Harry’s been handling it with chill neutrality that I wish we had more of. He either legitimately is not into men on a physical level or he’s just able to not be a creep about it when he believes there’s a person living inside the well-toned meat.
Then we learn what the woman was!
“Ghoul,” I told him. “Probably one of the LaChaise clan. They’re working with the Red Court, and they don’t much like me.”
“Why don’t they like you?”
“I’ve given them headaches a few times.”
Billy lifted a corner of his shirt to hold against the cuts on his face. “I didn’t expect the claws.”
“They’re sneaky that way.”
“Ghoul, huh. Is it dead?”
I shook my head. “They’re like cockroaches. They recover from just about anything.
Now, we’ve heard about ghouls before, in the previous book:
“I trust you have no complaints about the blessed water?”
“None at all,” I said. “Talk about your surprised ghouls.”
And I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything other than this.
These days, ghouls are often portrayed as human-shaped animals, a pack of wild dogs perhaps. And you could surprise a bunch of animals.
But that wasn’t what he meant.
Ghouls are, it turns out, people. People capable of retreating in the face of danger, of not only working together with ordinary humans but hopping into the same van to escape together. People with names. And perhaps they’re similar to vampires in that their nature requires them to prey on humans in some way (but traditionally in European myth, ghouls eat the dead and not the living) perhaps there is any justification to how Harry does not bother to explain what exactly they did that he felt needed to be answered with holy agony.
(why did he need to use blessed water, if he wanted fire he could have burned them with his own magic, we’ve seen Michael’s power and even the horror of a death by burning pales in comparison)
But whatever they did… They’re people and Harry calls them cockroaches.
Back to the toads! The toads are a better subject. The toad Harry is holding poops on him, which proves it’s real. This largely makes sense but presumably some of the toads are injured and bleeding. So viscera are not evidence of reality but other matter moving through that is. I feel like, with magic, giving them contents for their stomach isn’t that much harder than giving them a stomach, so that this would be a common mistake to make but not actually proof because someone could be clever enough to check the right boxes, but perhaps it’s a matter of templates. If toads aren’t assembled piece by piece but by pulling matter into the shape of the concept of a toad, then it could be that you can’t make toad stomach and also a cricket in the toad’s stomach, you can can only make toad esophagus and toad intestine next to toad stomach.
But that then raises a lot of questions about symbiotic bacteria, and even mitochondria, or in a different direction, do the toads have any stored energy in their system? Shouldn’t they instantly die, or more accurately never start up in the first place, because there’s no sugar in their cells or bloodstream?
Likely the best answer is that magic toads are working by magic and none of their parts are actually functional, but in that case it seems questionable they’d even have internal organs, and that seems like it should be reasonably easy to tell.
But anyway the fact the toads are real means magic is definitely going screwy.
Since Billy got mauled saving Harry, he’s allowed into Harry’s car and Harry agrees to go to the appointment and even apologizes for being a dick.
Then the toad rain picks up.
Not occasionally plopping, but raining down so thick and hard that they darkened the sky. No gentle laundry-chute drop for these poor things, either. They fell like hailstones, splattering on concrete, on the hood of the Beetle. One of them fell hard enough to send a spider-web of cracks through my windshield, and I dropped into gear and scooted down the street. After a few hundred yards we got away from the otherworldly rain.
Oh no, toads!
I flipped on the windshield wipers. Amphibian blood left scarlet streaks on the cracked glass.
“Good Lord,” Billy breathed.
“Yeah.” I said. “It never rains, it pours.”
Dammit, Harry. The bit about the windshield was great. Why wouldn’t you have ended there instead of stupid quips?