Authors Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey inject fresh life and more than a few sparks of originality into some familiar and well-worn tropes in Practitioners from Bloodshot Books, genre-hopping with apparent ease to flesh out a novel that feels like a dream come true.
On the trope side of things, we have police officer, Henry Stapleton, who is reeling from the death of his wife and is fueled by revenge. Thankfully, Hayward and Lacey upend our familiarity with such a heavily trod character almost immediately. Stapleton, it turns out, is completely off his rocker and his vivid recollections of finding and torturing his wife's killer are psychotic breaks with reality. What's more, he's having waking dreams that lead him to a spate of fresh corpses. His attempts to control his lucid dreaming send him even deeper down the rabbit hole, straight into a paranoid nightmare that could reshape and destroy reality.
Practitioners is a novel all about escalation. The more things Stapleton tries to fix, the worse things get. While Hayward and Lacey embrace the initial noir aspects of their pseudo-cop drama, their story stretches beyond any one genre, preferring to take an everything but the kitchen sink approach. Equal parts cop shop, horror, and fantasy, Practitioners is a hefty blend of cross-genre scares that admirably chugs along without losing sight of its cataclysmic destination.
Stapleton's journey from police officer to dream warrior comes off far more plausible than it should, which is a credit to how well the author's have constructed this story. It helps that Stapleton is initially presented as a bit of a suspect character and we're never quite sure how crazy grief has made him. Hayward and Lacey slowly weave in the supernatural elements, giving us small doses that are just enough to jilt expectations, while embellishing Stapleton's waking-world life with enough paranoia, New Age mysticism, and investigative do-right to prepare us for the headlong dive into madness. This is a book that starts off small and personal and blows up in a wildly cataclysmic and bloody climax that presents a war on two different fronts of consciousness.
It's heady stuff to be sure, but the authors make it all look disconcertingly easy. Practitioners is a highly successful collaboration and the styles of Dublin-based Hayward and Massachusetts-native Lacey mesh seamlessly. I didn't notice any peculiarities in syntax, cultural oddities, or awkward turns of phrase that occasionally occur between authors writing together from opposite sides of the pond.
If I must voice one complaint, though, it's that the various dreams and dream worlds Stapleton journeys through never quite felt strange enough for me. Through it all, there's a certain linearity and even almost-normalcy to it, despite even the occasional appearance of strange creatures. While there's a healthy dose of oddity to the surrounding events that prompt Stapleton to travel between his neighbor's dreams, I wish some of the dream states he found himself in were even more unusual. More often than not, the authors rely on presenting dreams that are either alternate realities where the dreamer engages in particular sexual fetishes or the book's setting of Bellville is depicted as an apocalyptic wasteland. While this latter depiction of Bellville is well-rendered, I could have done with a bit more variety in the various dreamy landscapes. It is also possible I'm simply too inured to stories of my wife's crazy dreams.
While I loved Practitioners and its pulp-noir and chaotic creature-feature sensibilities, few things within Stapleton's lucid dreams are as weird as my darling wife's dreams after she's had Chinese food. This is perhaps too high a bar to set, though, as even the most wildly inventive and creative writer would have a tough time competing with some of my wife's doozies in dreamland. Personally, it's rare that I even remember any of my own dreams, so it's entirely possible my wife is just weird and Practitioners depictions of dream-life are more common and realistic than my spouse's anecdotes would lead me to believe. So, as far as complaints go, this one is certainly nothing to lose sleep over.
Hayward and Lacey pack in enough freshness and a few honestly earned surprises to make Practitioners a book I can easily recommend. It really did hit all the right buttons for me between its awesomely designed cover by Rachel Autumn Deering, and a highly cool concept and well articulated vision from the authors, one that exists on multiple planes of reality and features some neat-o fantasyland magic and killer monsters. I mean, who doesn't love killer monsters?
[Note: I received an advanced review copy of this title from the author.]
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