Okay, so the rundown is as follows: Nocturnal is a book with a lot of cool ideas. It follows Inspector Bryan Clauser and his partner Pookie Chang as they chase down cults, conspiracies, and serial-killing monsters in the streets of San Francisco. The last two hundred pages are a powerhouse of a ride, and a lot of the twists are well-built and not telegraphed. Scott Sigler knows what he's doing, and when it shines through, it shines. The characters' chemistry and some humor from the hunter of the supernatural not knowing exactly what he's doing also lend itself to some good scenes.
The problem is that there are three hundred pages before that, a lot of which tends to feel kind of like bloat and slows the momentum down a little, when Sigler's at his best with the throttle wide open and the plots breathless. The other major problem is that the main character is very hard to connect to, and that the plot feels kind of more built from conveniences than logical conclusions, and there are a lot of leaps.
But in the end, despite its flaws, I highly recommend looking into Scott Sigler's books, and if you happen to find it on the library shelf, go ahead and give Nocturnal a try. You may find you like it more than I do. I just wouldn't recommend buying it.
More, as always, below.
"How about Chang and Clauser, then?"
"It sounds like a cop show, if it was about gay cops. Who moonlighted as interior decorators."
"I'd watch the hell out of that. It'd be, like, my favorite show of all time."
- Bryan Clauser and Pookie Chang
I'd like to talk about organic plotting for a second. Organic plotting is the term given to plots that occur, well, organically. Actions follow actions. You can nod your head and go "yes, this conclusion meets this premise". The opposite of Mass Effect 3, is what I'm saying. Now, while this may sound like the easiest thing in the world to do, it's not actually that easy to get right. Things need to happen in plots, and they need to happen a certain way, and that way and the things that need to happen may not line up with the plot. And it is hell and a half in a handbasket to scrap a plot and rework it so that the characters and situations occur organically. Even then, when it's deployed correctly, the plot may not be interesting enough to continue. Similarly, the plot ideas you have may be the centerpiece of the story, and getting there may be an issue.
Sitting pretty opposite of organic plotting is "plotting of convenience". This is actually simpler to set up, but harder to do well. The issue with plotting of convenience is that it all feels kind of contrived to set up the coincidences. In a mystery story, this could possibly mean that the hero follows a series of intuitive decisions and random associative deductions to get to where they want. In a science fiction or fantasy novel, the idea of causality or destiny often appears*. In the most egregious examples, things just happen regardless of rhyme or reason, mostly because they need to happen. People just happen to find the right clue. Which leads to the right person. And the right person has something that blows the case wide open. When it happens a few times, it gets the plot to move along the right way. When it happens multiple times over the course of a rather lengthy novel, it gets a little thinner.
Nocturnal by Scott Sigler kind of straddles the line on contrived plotting of convenience, and plotting of convenience that actually works. It's a weird "supernatural" horror story (more on that later), so some of the conveniences and coincidences make perfect sense. Especially when it's tied to the set of "powers" that the hero has. But only some of them. There are some logic leaps that, despite this being a story about nocturnal serial-murdering monsters living in modern-day San Francisco, that the book tends to accept without taking a moment to wonder why such things happen. And if this were the one issue with the book, I'd probably end there and sing its praises. But, well...
Nocturnal is first and foremost the story of Bryan Clauser. Bryan is a detective in the SFPD, and lives a fairly solitary life. His ex-girlfriend made him move out, he doesn't have much in the way of friends, and his co-workers in the department nicknamed him "Terminator" because he shot four people in the line of duty. He's the kind of man who leaves his house each day armed to the teeth just to be safe, seems cold to the few people who aren't in his tight inner circle, and is mostly defined by his job. His partner, Pookie Chang, is a wisecracking overweight homicide inspector whose dream is to make a cop drama series centered around his self-insert character, tentatively titled Blue Balls. Bryan and Pookie are called in on a homicide, a former pedophile priest who has been rather messily dismembered and urinated on in an alleyway. Bryan, however, smells something else, some odd mix of pheromones under the urine stink, and immediately gets sick.
And then things get weird.
Bryan gets better. Much better. Like, able to take standing leaps on to the top of vans better. And he's healing faster, too. At the same time, a young man named Rex draws violent pictures of people he'd like to see dead. People that start turning up dead, at murder scenes with strange symbols painted in the victims' blood. Meanwhile, Bryan and Pookie try to track down the murderers with the help of Bryan's medical examiner ex-girlfriend, and Pookie's former partner who now works in graffiti analysis. But these are no ordinary killers, and the heroes will have to deal with a decades-spanning coverup as well as a breed of killer that is both more and less than human. And in the end, Bryan Clauser and his friends will discover things about both Bryan and the city he lives in that were probably best left undisturbed. If they live long enough, that is.
I suppose what leads off for me is that the chemistry between the leads is great. I know this isn't something people usually say about novels, but it really helps. Especially in an age where a lot of authors seem to forget that such a thing is incredibly important and can actually help out the plot. Pookie and Bryan really do feel like they've been there for each other for years, and that shows through in every joke and carefully tossed barb and even the lines the two of them exchange during danger. Even when the core cast expands to three, and then four, they feel close. Like more than coworkers, but still their own people.
The other biggest strength of Nocturnal is that Scott Sigler can write an amazing, brutal horror story once he gets going. The last two hundred pages of Nocturnal are real white-knuckle stuff, and there's an element of uncertainty there about who will live and who will die that helps ratchet up the tension nicely, leading to a gruesome and cathartic climax. Sigler knows what he's doing, and to be fair, a lot of the time it's hard to see the twists coming, or to figure out who's on whose side. The energy, the way the plot moves when it gets cooking, and the astonishing narrative dexterity is all very impressive. I also have to commend Sigler for making his hero somewhat ordinary despite his powers and all the help he gets when the novel gets moving. It makes some of the choices he makes and some of the defeats suffered later in the book a lot more organic, and that definitely benefits the plot.
But you may notice a lot of caveats in that paragraph, and there's a reason for that. The book is five hundred and sixty-six pages long. The plot doesn't start moving at the white-knuckle tautly-plotted point I just praised until about three hundred pages or so into the work. And a lot of that plotting can be streamlined. Yes, there's a reason to develop the characters in those early pages, and to set up some of the early murders, and there's a lot of work Sigler does getting the villain into place. But providing relevant context does not help Sigler's case. Especially when the book spends a lot of the time it could be spending moving the plot forward instead fleshing people out with expository character development instead. I'm of the opinion that Sigler's strengths are when he's pitching fastballs and flinging everything he has at the reader in rapid-fire pace. He doesn't strike me as a particularly slow-play kind of person. And some of the pacing kills the mood, where points that are taut, suspenseful, and horrific are strung between scenes of dialogue and character development. It also kind of kills the energy, which turns some points of the novel into a slog.
The other issue with the plot is that a lot of it seems to be plotting of convenience. The heroes tend to battering-ram their way through the plot when simply taking a moment to look at things could possibly have led to the same solution earlier. There's a lot of luck going on, be it Bryan and Pookie not getting fired from their jobs for going so far away from (even streamlined) protocol that the question wasn't "will these two get fired", but "when will these two get themselves and their friends fired" and "why have they not been fired if this is the way they run the investigation?" Even when things make sense, the heroes tend to stumble on the one clue that fires up a whole cascade of investigation from point to point, and it just feels a little...false in places.
And a great deal of that character development is expository. Now, I'm not by any means saying exposition is a bad thing. It provides valuable context to the scenes, can help push along any reluctant plots, and helps explain why we should care about the events going on, rather than just having them shoved in our faces. But the old rule has always been "show, don't tell", and this is where the book falters. We hear a lot about Bryan Clauser. We hear that he gets results. We hear that he's saved several peoples' lives, and they're indebted to him no matter how much of a jerk he is. There are long paragraphs talking about what each character is, what they do, and people commenting on them. But there are, at least in the front part of the book, very few examples of them doing things. And this is what sinks it for me. That we get a lot of information, but very little is done. Yes, there are a few incidents here and there, but the time between them could have been shortened without much effort.
Which brings me to the characters themselves. There are some good, fleshed-out characters in Nocturnal. There are also some characters that have added depth, making them more sympathetic than they initially appear to be (the police chief would be a big one). There is also an entire cast of villains who are not sympathetic in the least, but are somewhat intriguing overall. If only the hero weren't a blank, most of the information about whom is filled in by the supporting cast. While eventually Bryan becomes more of a character, it is in spite of this constant narration, not because of it.
But even then, when the book finally reaches its climax and Bryan receives his development and the cast starts getting taken out left and right, some of it feels like Sigler enforcing an "anyone can die" attitude, and some of it just feels like he's sacrificing characters so his protagonist gets more development. Which is annoying, since the protagonist is ultimately the least compelling of the bunch***, and while he's got more than his share of questions I wanted answered, I felt like the book shone more when the POV was taken away from Bryan Clauser and given to the numerous other characters. It makes a little sense, it's Clauser's origin story from enigmatic blank to superpowered hunter of whatever it is, but in most cases, that's handled a lot quicker than it is here.
In the end, if you're in the mood for a good horror-thriller with a weird-science edge, I'd suggest taking this out of the library and giving it a spin. Sigler has definite writing chops, and the book feels like Nightbreed if you viewed it from the human side. It's also a good thriller if you want to switch things off a little and go in for a B-movie with some teeth to it. But personally, I'd look to Sigler's other, leaner books if you want to get into him. Nocturnal is a little bloated, the slow-play doesn't work completely in its favor, and while there's one hell of a payoff, the journey could stand to be a little tighter. Still, despite my issues, I enjoyed it, and I want to look up other works of Sigler's to compare notes.
- City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte
- The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan
- Mainspring by Jay Lake
- The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
- Koko by Peter Straub
AND MORE TO COME
*Soft sci-fi. Hard sci-fi fans who also read this blog**, please do not write in telling me I made a mistake with this.
** All two of you. Hi, guys!
***And also it verges on the old trope of trauma/loss making someone dark and complex and brooding. Which, as Garth Ennis rightfully pointed out in The Boys, does not usually happen. It usually just makes someone wanna curl up and wither away.