This was a high-octane thriller well worth the quick read. A kick-ass heroine in the urban fantasy mold is the Chosen One destined to hunt dragons, or...moreThis was a high-octane thriller well worth the quick read. A kick-ass heroine in the urban fantasy mold is the Chosen One destined to hunt dragons, or more precisely, one dragon, as she is the latest in a long line of dragonslayers. But our heroine has a few problems. PTSD. Heroin addiction. Homelessness. Basically, she's a mess.
This novella works fine at the length it is at; a full-length novel would have dragged on too long (though I was a little disappointed at the full-length-novel price for a very short ebook, but I won't hold that against the author). It's lots of fun, full of violent action and blood and mayhem, and a real page-turner with a few twists at the end.
Chasing the Dragon wasn't able to earn 5 stars from me because the action scenes began to take on an unrealistic video-game quality, and there were a couple of great big plot holes at the end, but the story was entertaining enough for me to give it a solid 4 stars.(less)
Tony Hillerman used to be one of my favorite authors, but he did that thing a lot of authors do with long-running series: said he was done writing Lea...moreTony Hillerman used to be one of my favorite authors, but he did that thing a lot of authors do with long-running series: said he was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries, but then kept writing them. After the stinker that was The Sinister Pig, I was almost afraid to read Skeleton Man, since it's the next to last book Hillerman wrote before he died, and I'd rather remember Hillerman in his glory days, when Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee were still fresh and sharp and coming at their Navajo ways from two different viewpoints: Leaphorn the veteran, the pragmatic realist who has no patience for superstitions, and Chee the rookie, the traditional Navajo who wants to be a cop and a medicine man.
Skeleton Man was better than The Sinister Pig, but it brought nothing new to the series or the characters. I mean, it also does what all long-running detective series do and start to become as much about the characters' personal lives as whatever case they are working on this book. Chee is now engaged to Bernadette Manuelito, who was first introduced several books ago as a love interest for Chee, who has been notoriously unlucky in love since he first appeared way back in the early books to share the spotlight with Leaphorn. But that's about all this book is: an update on Bernie and Chee.
The actual plot involves a plane crash fifty years ago that left a suitcase full of diamonds handcuffed to a dead man's wrist at the bottom of a canyon in the reservation. Now, fifty years later, someone wants those diamonds, and the dead man's daughter wants his arm so she can use DNA testing to prove he was her father. We get a repeat of the previous book in that basically you've got a rich villain sending a hired thug to do his dirty work, so it's another white dude showing up to cause trouble.
The entire story is framed as Joe Leaphorn ("the legendary Leaphorn" as he is referred to umpteen times) telling the story to his old fart buddies around coffee - this is the pretext to even get him involved in the book at all. There is a little bit of interaction with some Hopi Indians (hence the double-meaning of the title; there is a very loose connection to a Hopi myth), and the climax is resolved by an act of nature.
This is really just a short story that Hillerman padded out to (barely) novel length.
I can only recommend Skeleton Man for true Hillerman fans who just want to finish the series. There won't be any more Chee/Leaphorn novels, after all. But the earlier books in the series are well worth reading; start with The Blessing Way.(less)
In this late installment in the series, Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito finally break the ice after dancing around each other for the last few books. Th...moreIn this late installment in the series, Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito finally break the ice after dancing around each other for the last few books. That's probably of more significance to fans of the Leaphorn/Chee series than the plot, which is a fairly tedious one about drug smuggling and stolen oil money. Everything is resolved in a tidy fashion and even the main characters seemed as if they were just making cameos. If you've been a long-time fan of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries, it's a decent read, but it's pretty evident that Hillerman wrote this in his declining years.(less)
Cormac McCarthy conflicts me like no other author save Haruki Murakami. McCarthy's prose stylings sometimes make me go "Whoa!" and sometimes "WTF man...moreCormac McCarthy conflicts me like no other author save Haruki Murakami. McCarthy's prose stylings sometimes make me go "Whoa!" and sometimes "WTF man could you just please use punctuation like a normal person?!" His style is very much part of the "experience" of reading this book. I kept wondering how long he spent crafting each sentence, whether he just belts them out like that or if each and every one is a finely-crafted piece of word-smithing that he lingers over and works and reworks. Gads, I hope he isn't able to just shit prose like this like it ain't no thang, 'cause it ain't human!
In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north. The sun in the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies. The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.
Other times, though, his prose waxes on to the point of near-inscrutability. And underneath it, you sense McCarthy is saying something profound, but you just can't grasp it. It's all covered with dried blood and the buzzing of flies and peeled skins and grinning skulls.
This is a really, really violent book. There's no moral message, no redemption, and really, not much of a plot. A band of tough killin' hombres run amok through the untamed west, initially on a semi-legal commission to kill Indians for the Mexican government, but pretty soon they are killing anything and anyone in sight. The book is one massacre after another, all described in some of the most vivid prose I've ever read. The bloodbaths are an intrinsic part of the landscape, violence as natural to the land as the rocks and the sun, and McCarthy describes this brutal, amoral West without the slightest bit of sentiment or glorification or optimism. Men fight, men die, and while they live they live in baser conditions than any Hollywood movie has dared show. After a while you stop even questioning how historically authentic this book is; it doesn't matter if McCarthy's descriptions of the various Indian tribes and desert settlements and skirmishes between Americans and Mexican and Indians are even remotely accurate. This is a bloody fable about an alternate universe that looks like ours with all faith and hope and humanity flensed from it.
There is tons of action, but I wouldn't call this an adventure or a fast-paced thriller; the characters drift towards what you know is an inevitable end, each scene topping the last for an excess of violence and depravity. Yet McCarthy manages to write all this visceral violence without seeming exploitative or carnographic. Blood Meridian won't make you feel icky and dirty after reading it, it will make you feel bleak, maybe a bit numb, maybe a bit awed.
I am not sure how to rate this. McCarthy's prose deserves high praise for most excellent craftsmanship, but why did at times it seem so damn pretentious? I usually don't like books where the writing style ostentatiously calls attention to itself. Sometimes it served its purpose and sometimes it distracted me. There is certainly nothing cheery or satisfying in the story itself, nor is there much resolution. But I think I am going to have to give it 5 stars despite it definitely not being one of my most enjoyed recent reads, because I have to recognize McCarthy's artistry. Also, one other element in this book elevated it to 5-star status:
Just take my word for it, this dude is one scary mother-f***er and the creepiest villain you've read in a long time. He is the Devil incarnate. He's like a fantasy element dropped into this Western fable, but he (and the author) never quite admit that he's anything other than a man.
One of the reasons I liked No Coutry for Old Men was Anton Chigurh. Well, if Anton Chigurh and the Judge ever meet, it will be the two of them riding with the other two horsemen of the apocalypse. Goddamn.
McCarthy is still a mixed bag for me. Hated The Road. Liked NCFOM. Blood Meridian... I am still not sure. But my gut says 5 stars, even though I don't want to go read another Cormac McCarty novel real soon.(less)
You know how actors and people in some other fields get "lifetime achievement awards," and sometimes they get an Oscar not so much for the movie for w...moreYou know how actors and people in some other fields get "lifetime achievement awards," and sometimes they get an Oscar not so much for the movie for which they are ostensibly getting the Oscar, but because they have been around a long time and everyone loves them and they're probably not gonna turn in any more real Oscar-winning performances, so let 'em have the shiny gold dude now?
That's kind of why I'm giving The Shape Shifter five stars.
I first encountered Tony Hillerman as a freshman in college. I took an elective cultural anthropology course, just because, and one of the assigned books was The Blessing Way. This was the first of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries, starring Navajo police detective Joe Leaphorn, who would someday become the "legendary Leaphorn."
My cultural anthropology professor assigned it because like most American anthropologists he had a thing for the Navajo (an old Navajo joke is that a Navajo family consists of a grandmother, her daughters' families, and an anthropologist), and The Blessing Way not only included a lot of information about the Navajo, but made Navajo traditions an essential part of the plot: Leaphorn's ability to solve the central murder mystery in the book revolved around his ability to interpret Navajo beliefs and behavior.
I loved the book, though I did not end up majoring in anthropology, and over the next 25+ years, I read every one of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries. Usually I bought them in hardcover. I have always (until recently) been almost exclusively a SF & fantasy reader, with the occasional foray into mystery novels, but Hillerman remained one of my favorite authors, year after year. It wasn't so much the mysteries that enthralled me, but the way he wrote such believable and interesting Navajo characters. I became familiar with Shiprock, Tuba City, Window Rock, and the Four Corners region and the mesas and deserts and arroyos of the Southwest as if I had been there, though I've never done more than drive through the area. And of course, Joe Leaphorn and the growing cast of characters became like old friends.
Tony Hillerman was not himself a Native American. Nowadays, white authors writing other cultures frequently get themselves in trouble; even if they do their research and manage not to be offensive, cultural appropriation is still becoming quite a rankling issue. But Hillerman was named a Special Friend of the Dineh by the Navajo Tribe; he always wrote respectfully and with unimpeachable verisimilitude about his Navajo characters (and Hopi and Zuni and other tribes as well).
He also obscured locations in his books that were based on real places, to prevent people from looking for the sites he described. This wasn't an idle precaution - apparently tons of tourists really visit the Four Corners area to see "Hillerman country," and the Navajo Tribal Police Station in Window Rock gets phone calls from people actually wanting to talk to Lieutenant Leaphorn or Sergeant Chee.
Joe Leaphorn is a practical man, college-educated, and while respectful of his Navajo roots, something of a skeptic. His wife Emma was a traditional Navajo, and he always took her wishes seriously, but Leaphorn himself saw superstition and some of the old tribal ways as hindrances and sources of trouble. As he said when asked whether he believed in witches, "I believe in people who believe in witches." Leaphorn would map out clues and do legwork (which was a lot of legwork across the entire Navajo Nation) and eventually his detective's instincts and Navajo intuition would solve the case, only occasionally with any guns being fired.
In the fourth book in the series, People of Darkness, Hillerman introduced Officer Jim Chee, a younger member of the Tribal Police who would become Leaphorn's colleague and partner and eventual friend, though not without some tension. Chee was a traditional Navajo, also college educated, but unlike Leaphorn, he truly believed in the Navajo Way, and spent much of the series studying to become a shaman and trying to reconcile that with also being a policeman. Leaphorn was not initially impressed by Chee's attempt to navigate these two often-contradictory paths, and did not think being a medicine man was compatible with being a cop. One of the most poignant points in the entire series was when Leaphorn, after a particularly grueling case, asked Chee to perform a Blessing Way ceremony for him, which was kind of like a lapsed Catholic asking a priest for confession. Leaphorn, the grizzled old lieutenant, was finally expressing his respect and friendship of the younger man.
Years go by. Leaphorn "retires" but never stays out of cases. Chee would eventually become Sergeant and then Lieutenant. Chee's romantic life would feature significantly in many of the books. When we first meet him, he is dating a white schoolteacher named Mary Landon, in a long-distance relationship that will last for several books. But Mary is never going to be happy living on the Rez with Chee, and Chee has no desire to go become her domesticated Indian husband. When that relationship ends, he begins dating Janet Pete, a half-white, half-Navajo lawyer. Beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious, she's a fine gal and Chee is very much in love with her. He even gets to proposing to her. But Janet wants Chee to join her in Washington, D.C., and even pulls strings to get him a slot in the FBI. The problem is, she's unwilling to accept that Chee doesn't want to give up his spartan, traditional life as a medicine man and Tribal Police officer. And Janet Pete is not a Reservation girl, will never be a Reservation girl.
The thirteenth book in the series, The First Eagle, introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Tribal Police, a Navajo cutie who is destined to be girlfriend #3 for Jim Chee, and really the point at which I thought the series began its decline. Not so much because of Bernadette, who is a perfectly fine character, and Hillerman, to his credit, always treats her (and other female characters) as equal characters who pull their weight in the story and aren't just damsels in distress, love interests, or appendages to the men, even if it is the male characters who occupy center stage most of the time.
Long-running mystery series tend to accumulate cruft; after the first couple of books, they become increasingly less about the mystery du jour than the ongoing personal dramas of the characters. At first the regular reader enjoys this, wanting to catch up on how Jim Chee and his girlfriend are doing, or how Emma's health is nowadays, but sadly, too many authors begin to use these recurring tropes as shortcuts to reader investment, and Hillerman eventually fell prey to it himself. His last few books were, well, not really very good. This is not to say they were bad — still quite readable, but there was nothing new in them, the "mysteries" were lukewarm, the involvement of all the regulars often forced and tertiary. The setting was the same old setting and the Navajo elements were pro forma. Really, the stories in the last three books were pretty much just vehicles to move Chee and Manuelito along toward their eventual nuptials. I recall reading some time in the late 90s, I think, that Hillerman was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries. Maybe like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his fans wouldn't let him, or maybe he just loved his characters too much to let go of them after all.
Four of his books were made into movies, all available on Netflix. The Dark Wind starred Lou Diamond Phillips (Hollywood's "go-to" Indian actor) as Jim Chee.
A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers, and Coyote Waits were all PBS Mystery specials.
Anyway, at last we come to this book, the eighteenth and last book in the series. There won't be any more, because Hillerman died in 2008.
The Shape Shifter, to be fair, is better than the preceding two books, The Sinister Pig and Skeleton Man, which had me sadly shaking my head at just how much Hillerman the author was phoning it in. But The Shape Shifter tries very hard to force a bit of Navajo mythology into the story, mostly by allusion; the plot is about an ex-CIA man, a Hmong refugee, and very old cold case that draws the "legendary lieutenant" (in the last half dozen or so books, this phrase will be repeated constantly in reference to "retired" Lieutenant Leaphorn) out of retirement just like he has been in the last few books. Chee and Manuelito barely figure into the plot at all; Hillerman has Leaphorn call Chee to ask him to do a little bit of legwork for him as an excuse to get the newlyweds peripherally involved. The "mystery" isn't really a mystery, at least not the sort where the author leaves clues to give the reader a chance to figure out what's going on before the climax.
It's enjoyable light reading, but would I honestly recommend The Shape Shifter to anyone who isn't a Hillerman fan? No. In itself, it is a 3-star book.
But. I've been reading Tony Hillerman for 27 years now. I've just finished the last book he ever wrote or ever will write. And there are not many other series where I can say I've read all 18 books, in sequence. Do I remember all the details of each one, after all these years? No, most of them kind of blur together. But Tony Hillerman, who was a decorated World War II vet, winner of many literary awards and a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and Special Friend of the Dineh, wrote books I've been fans of over half my life. Someday, I may just start over with The Blessing Way and reread them all again.
So, although my head says The Shape Shifter should only get 3 stars, in my heart I am giving it a collective rating for all the hours I spent reading about Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, Janet Pete, Cowboy Dashee, Bernadette Manuelito, and many, many others, and traveled with them across the Four Corners. 5 stars, Mr. Hillerman.(less)