Dead Matter: Plenty of laughs, not enough sweat

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Anton Strout Simon Canderous 3. Dead MatterDead Matter by Anton Strout

Dead Matter is the third book in the Simon Canderous series by Anton Strout. Overall, it was entertaining, worth reading, and just missed being exceptional. One unexpected strength of Dead Matter is the plot, including the mystery. Too often, in fantasy billed as comedic, the plot or mystery suffers. Not so here. Anton Strout is an excellent story crafter, and his talent shines throughout. The setting is also strong: imagine Ghostbusters meets Dilbert. In this case, Simon works as a psychometrist (reading object histories) for the New York City Bureau of Extraordinary Affairs, an organization so wrapped up in red tape it’s amazing anyone can ever get out in the field to fight the Forces of Darkness. The main characters, too, especially Simon Canderous and his girlfriend Jane, are interesting enough to carry the reader through the novel.

So how did it miss being exceptional? Well, my primary beef is with the range of emotional response I felt while reading, which is closely related to what I’ll call the thread of dramatic tension. Specifically, the jokes, gags and quips (internal and dialogue) often undermined the tension, especially the sense of peril to Simon or Jane. The plot puts the characters into significant amounts of danger. Jane gets eaten by a building. They get attacked by a mutated virus. They get captured by vampires. Simon gets arrested, etc. The danger is such that the reader could and should be laughing in one scene and desperately worried for the hero’s very survival in the next. Instead, as a reader, I smiled frequently, and chuckled occasionally, but never once worked up a good sweat.

Several factors contributed to this. First, whenever I started to get worried, Simon made a quip that defused my dread, returning to the light, amusing tone that stays with us throughout the novel. Second, when Simon does get scared or hurt, we are mostly told he’s scared, not shown how scared he is with enough care that we actually share his emotions. Third, a good portion of the novel’s humor comes from naming convention jokes — Forces of Darkness, Forces of Good, etc — which is fine except that, being names, the same jokes are perforce repeated over and over throughout the series and quickly lose much of their humorous impact. So, we’re faced with a perilous situation, and we have to go to some cheesily named place for help. And not only does that make the situation less scary, it’s not all that funny the third time we hear the name. The series would be stronger if a higher percentage of the humor were pushed into the dialogue and situations and out of the naming conventions and if the jokes appeared more selectively, in places where being funny better serves the purpose of the specific scene.

While some of my comments may sound harshly critical, the reality is that I enjoyed reading Dead Matter, and I think that Anton Strout is hitting his stride with this series. I think the potential exists to deepen and vary the reader’s emotional experience and to turn this series into something truly exceptional. Meanwhile, it’s still a light-hearted, fun read for fans of urban fantasy.


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STEPHEN (S.B.) FRANK, one of our guest contributors, earned a Ph.D. at Duke University and works in the field of education reform. When he needs a break from real life, he likes to indulge in urban fantasy. He has a particular love for humor, so some of his favorite authors are Dakota Cassidy, Mary Janice Davidson, Mark Henry, Julie Kenner, Katie MacAlister, Richelle Mead and Christopher Moore.

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