Review: Palm Sunday, by R. J. Fisher

Palm Sunday (2012)
by R. J. Fisher
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageI loved this novel and, at the same time, found it frustrating. What’s to love? The meat. What’s frustrating? The seasoning. Or invent your own metaphor: the characterization, setting, world-building, and plot are strong, but a solid round of professional editing is very much needed.

The strongest element, I think, is the main character, Dewey McShane, who joins the already small cadre of male urban-fantasy heroes. But unlike the typical example of that group, Dewey isn’t macho sex-on-a-stick poured into a tight pair of leather pants and adorned with a fancy Japanese sword and a bad-ass gun. No, he’s a short, paunchy, mixed-race gay guy. Yeah, he’s psychic, but other than that, he’s wonderfully, humanly, charmingly normal. I fell in love with him immediately and rooted for him hard. I really, really wanted him to live. Moreover, he’s lonely, and I wanted him to find peace and happiness.

Not that Fisher gives us a pat HEA ending. Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre, but it hybridizes in a number of different ways. Here we’re getting fantasy melded with thriller, not romance. Perhaps we get to see Dewey in love in later books in the series (I see Fisher has Books 2 and 3 out already, but I’ve yet to read them). But in Palm Sunday, the focuses are mistrust, confusion, moral gray areas, greed, craziness, back-stabbing, and demon-world politics.

Dewey works for a “travel agency” that arranges for demons — here conceptualized not as devils, according to a Christian paradigm, but as a species that lacks yet yearns for the experience of true existence — to visit New Orleans for a brief vacation by allowing them to possess a “rental” body. Distressingly, the rental bodies belong to brain-damaged senior citizens. So, while you love Dewey and root for him, he’s no saint — he’s involved in something creepy and discomforting. Dewey’s job becomes massively complicated and potentially deadly when he has to figure out why some demons have been able to possess bodies outside the sanctioned vacations provided by the travel agency.

This is all carried out quite well, plotwise. Dewey finds himself in increasingly scary and confusing situations as the novel progresses, and there’s a well placed and satisfying climax. I wonder if the “now everything gets explained” moment could’ve been staged in a way that didn’t have people standing around explaining themselves and one another so much, but it’s hard to wrap up a thriller without some of that. Big Baddies have a tendency to monologue — as an author, what can you do?

My frustration with the novel comes from its lack of editing and proofreading. Fisher can write — there’s no doubt about that. There’s nary a semicolon error in sight, and Palm Sunday offers some wonderful passages of tight genre-fiction prose:

“Groovy.” I closed my eyes and let my head fall back. “Anything else I need to know?”
A pause. I heard the answer long before I heard the lie.
“No,” she said. (Kindle Locations 2554-2557)

That is some fine dialogue supplemented wonderfully by the narrative voice. It’s so economical. And how about this?

I picked at the white paint on the holding cell bars … making sure to keep a distance from Jerry in order to give his ramblings plenty of room to breathe. (Kindle Locations 2387-2388)

That’s a really nice metaphor — short and subtle, but with a punch and enough wryness to help build Dewey’s narrative voice. But then in the very next sentence, we get:

I tried to bring my thoughts to an appropriately morbid placed, but instead they insisted on playing a game of hopscotch. (Kindle Locations 2388-2389)

The book has several dozen of these kinds of typos, the ones spell-checker won’t catch. It also has quite a few that spell-checker would’ve caught, such as “ahir” for “hair.” “Your” and “you’re” get mixed up, as do “blonde” and “blond.” Many words get left out (“I could still [hear?] her determination”). There are instances of misused vocabulary, such as “circumvent” used to mean “encircle”. Almost every time Dewey uses a “Joe-and-I” kind of structure, he should be saying “Joe and me.” Hyphens are used where we should get M-dashes. Extra spaces creep in, periods get left out. None of the compound modifiers are hyphenated. There’s just a lot.

Lastly, many sentences lack the powerful, spare directness of the ones I’ve quoted above:

Now, I am more than aware that a tongue has no olfactory system housed within its flesh. (Kindle Location 166)

Sentences like this lose the taut, spare (yet subtly rich) directness that marks Fisher’s best prose. Writing that advertises itself, so that the reader notices the prose style more than what’s happening (“I had the pleasure of watching shock work its way through her epidermis” [Kindle Locations 3527-3528]), is generally not a good fit in genre fiction. Our readers don’t come to be wowed by clever or unusual sentences; they come for the world-building, characters, and story. There are exceptions to the rule, but not many.

In short, this is a very good book that would be a great book if Fisher dropped a few hundred bucks on a professional editor — not just a proofreader, but a real book editor who could not only catch errors, but also suggest ways to tone down the wordy or florid passages. This is one valuable thing a traditional publisher is supposed to do for authors — provide editors. Since we’re indies, we have to do it for ourselves, but that does not mean doing it by ourselves: almost every writer has blind spots (including me, I’m sure) and it’s very, very hard to proofread your own writing.

Palm Sunday‘s formatting is fine, though the book lacks an assertion of copyright. If Fisher hasn’t applied for copyright, he certainly should. It only costs $35 to do it online at The cover? Okay, but not great. Editor first, then maybe a graphic designer for the whole series, once this very good book brings in the big bucks it deserves to make. I will certainly be reading the rest of the Dante Travel Agency series and following Fisher’s career as it develops. There’s tremendous promise, here.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.