We all (Bri & I) know that Jacqueline Carey is a fantasy-writing goddess. Now is neither the time nor the place, however, to extoll her many talents. Likewise, I shall not now engage in a heated blog post about everyone’s favorite pain-and-pleasure-lovin courtesan spy, the anguissette Phèdre nó Delaunay.
Instead, I shall recommend Carey’s much more light-hearted Agent of Hel series. This trilogy (and, yes, only a trilogy, to my disappointment) is her entry into what has been dubbed urban fantasy (somewhat a misnomer, but whatevs).
I had seen this recommended on audible, but I didn’t like the narrator, so I always put it off in order to read them, rather than listen. I’m glad I did. The first book still took a chapter or two to really ensure my continued devotion to the series, but it was worth it. Ultimately, this series has a nice grab-bag of fantasy tropes, mystical beings, and different pantheons that together are nourished by Carey’s irreverent, fast-paced, pop culture-laden prose.
Set in a small town in Michigan, our main character is the daughter of a human woman and a demon (who was summoned accidentally by some teenagers messing around with a Ouiji board – let that be a lesson to you, kids). Daisy is thus half-demon and has been warned all her life than if she were to “accept” her demonic father’s inheritance/powers, it could cause an Armageddon-type scenario. She doesn’t really have any special powers but she is easily angered, which causes tangible effects in her surroundings (power outages, etc.) and she works hard to control these outbursts and avoid the seven deadly sins lest she trigger her demonic heritage. Oh, and she has a little tail! I ended up kind of loving that detail. She talks about “tucking” her tail to hide it, and how sensitive it is, and how awkward it was when boys encountered it… Though not containing detailed sex scenes (though she does have sex at least once in each book, for those of you pervs who are counting), there is a solid romance that lured me along. It was relevant to her character and her love life drama still fit into the overarching narrative and was proportional to the other events.
Like many urban fantasy worlds, Carey’s humans are aware of certain aspects of magic, but don’t fully grasp most of it. As one might judge from the name, our main character Daisy works as a sort of mundane-magical liaison—in this case, she is the “agent” of the Norse being associated with the underworld, whose name is Hel. As Hel’s agent, she is charged with enforcing Hel’s rules above ground and thus in Hel’s territory.
(Because you have Hel, and thus some elements of the Norse mythology, you also have the ash tree Yggdrasil, the Norns, a sort of “little” Niflheim, and Garm, among other familiar faces.)
Ultimately, Carey provides a veritable smorgasbord of fae, demons, witches, mermaids, ogres, werewolves, giants, vampires, ghouls, and supernatural beings from different pantheons, as well as aspects from a Judeo-Christian cosmology.
(Most of that information is provided in the first several pages, so I’m not giving away any critical plot points.)
That being said, let me share a few reasons why this was a pleasurable read.
First, it’s not dark and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is nice. Second, it manages to be “modern” and enmeshed in popular culture in a way that is sincere and not annoying. She frequently cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer; she gets drunk with her best friend in her apartment while listening to hit songs from their high school days circa 2005; she occasionally quotes movies like Spider-Man and Princess Bride; she might send a drunk text and regret it the next morning. It sounds simple and mundane, but a lot of urban fantasy series that try to work in details in this vein come off as too forced or out of place. (Although, in a few more years, perhaps some young person will read it and be like, huh, that’s random and not really working. Alas, time.)
Along this line, I loved that Daisy is devoted to Gilmore Girls throughout the entire series. She watches reruns with her mom and wonders if, because of Luke, she “imprinted on jeans and flannel at a tender age thanks to countless episodes of Gilmore Girls” (Poison Fruit, 103).
Another thing I appreciated in this book, and which is appropriate to mention on this site… there is actually a strong female friendship! A couple, in fact! I noticed recently that a lot of urban fantasy books that feature a female lead nonetheless describe a woman often lacking friends, and female friends in particular. Picture, if you will, the independent, misunderstood, capable of taking care of herself, skilled in physical defense, tough-yet-vulnerable, emotional baggage carrying heroine. While Daisy checks some of those boxes, she has a healthy and loving relationship with her mother, she has a sort of friend-neighbor-godmother figure, and she has a bff from childhood. All in all, Daisy and her bff Jen have a healthy, two-way, strong female friendship throughout this book. Again, not a huge part of the story, but a nice element.
Finally, and more relevant to the fantasy aspect of this series, I liked Carey’s use of ghouls and the back stories she gives to this legend. I cannot say with any confidence that I know much about ghouls (well, that’s not exactly true anymore) and recent fantasy depictions of ghouls, but they’ve popped up in a few fantasy book series that I’ve read. Regardless of where, precisely, this take on ghouls originated, I do know that the Agent of Hel series features a slightly different type of ghoul, while remaining true to the legend.
In traditional fantasy lore, ghouls have been monsters or evil spirits that are associated with the dead and are often depicted as consuming dead flesh, though they may also kill live humans (eating live human flesh being the purview of zombies as opposed to ghouls, btw).
Often, ghouls reside in graveyards, and thus using ghoulish as an adjective today denotes some sort of macabre interest in the dead. In some stories, ghouls have been incorporeal and reminiscent more of ghosts. Other tales suggest an affinity between hyenas and ghouls. Still others said that a ghoul took the shape of the dead person they ate. Suffice to say, there are lots of variations, though most concern an immortal being that is a threat to humans and also feeds from the dead. (If you want to
waste your time go down a slightly more academic rabbit hole concerning the history of ghouls in Arabic culture, including pre-Islamic folklore and Islamic stories, check out this article.)
In Jacqueline Carey’s world, however, ghouls—or, Outcasts, as they prefer to be known (#respect)—are individuals who were formally mortal human beings who were cast out from, or rejected by, both heaven and hell at the time of their death and henceforth exist as immortal beings trapped on earth, constantly craving mortal human emotions.
So, in this scenario, when someone dies in an intense state of commingled sin and faith, they are disqualified, so to speak, from afterlife. For instance, it could be a man who thought to honor his slain father by killing his uncle who was responsible. Or an Outcast might be a misguided religious zealot who took the life of her child believing it was a righteous and ordained act. Once these mortals are denied both heaven and hell, and become Outcasts, their souls are returned to their physical body on the mortal plane, cursed to forever be stuck in the state they were in before death, regardless of how many times they die. In addition, they subsist on the emotions of other humans. They can do harm to humans by “draining” them of their soul, in a sense, by extracting all emotion, beliefs, concerns, will to live, etc.
From this brief explanation, you can see that it’s a nice and subtle spin on an old legend. There remains a focus on death and on consuming humans in some way—though, here, it is emotion and not flesh and bone.
As I said, this retelling was appealing to me. It fits with this fantasy world and the (admittedly under-explained) use of both biblical elements and numerous pantheons and cosmologies. It is in line with the light tone of the series as it allows for ghouls to retain more humanity and, well, I just think that sexy ghouls deserve their day in the sun! It shouldn’t be all about the vampires and were-animals! We’ve dipped our toes in the zombie waters. Now, let’s pay more attention to ghouls. They need our love, too.