In the often action-packed world of urban fantasy, where narratives move at a blistering pace and the time for introspection or contemplation is scant, it’s rare to have characters who truly wear their hearts on their sleeves.
That’s not to say that characters in all urban fantasies don’t go on some kind emotional journey; they almost always do, and that’s part of the reason why we stay invested as villains rage, destinies are unveiled and protagonists comes face to life altering face with fate and the fragile nature of mortality.
But in Jackson Ford’s latest entry in the Frist Files series, Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air, the successor to The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind, the emotional resonance registers very high on the scale, keeping pace with the action to an almost seamless degree.
Much like Maria Lewis manages in her superlative Supernatural Sisters series, Ford is able to meld some pretty intense emotional arcs, which never feel rushed or underdone, in with some fearsome full-speed narrative twists and turns which are so full-on in and of themselves that you would think there’d be precious page count left to spend time on rich characterisation, affecting interpersonal relationships or any sort of heartwrenching introspection.
But spend time Ford does, and beautifully so, meaning that while we are turning pages with a fury borne of the truly book besotted, we are also utterly subsumed in the people at the heart and soul of the story, people who are not simply there as props for a relentlessly demanding plot.
“But listen, you think you’ve had awkward break-ups? try this. Girl with psychokinetic abilities. She works for the government doing bad-ass secret-agent shit, and they refuse to let her reveal those abilities to anyone. That means she doesn’t dare have a boyfriend because said abilities go haywire during sex.” (P. 17)
Chief among these characters, of course, is the titular character, Teagen Frost, a feisty young woman and wannabe chef who is gifted, or cursed depending on her state of mind at the time, with the ability to use psychokinesis to move inorganic objects with near-effortless ease.
You would think she would glory in these mutant-like powers but Teagen often wrestles with how these powers define and limit her, especially since the government, for whom she works, demands she stay only in the Greater Los Angeles area and only use her abilities for the greater good.
Teagen, must to her great, swearing-predisposed annoyance has no say in the matter with the choices being either work for China Shop, a super secret agency dedicated to tackling the bad guys and gals whenever they pop up in L.A., or go back to a facility in Waco, Texas where she’ll be even more imprisoned than she is now.
Teagen has a lot on her plate, including a fractious relationship with workmate Annie, a burning desire to go to cooking school which will likely be denied and an on again-off again flirting regime with handsome, also food-obsessed Nic who really likes her as she likes him back but who can’t decide if he likes, or even approves of her enough.
All of this emotional baggage, all of it valid and all of it grounded in what feels like a thoroughly grounded experience (remarkable given the anything but grounded world in which Teagen lives) comes into play and then some when mysterious earthquakes start striking California and it looks a prodigious four-year-old boy might be the culprit.
Yes, yes, four-year-old boys don’t generally spend their time setting off massive city-shattering earthquakes, being usually more concerned with playing in sandpits and pretending to play cops and robbers with each other.
But Lucas/Matthew is not your average kid, gifted with the ability to pick up organic matter such as dirt and trees, and even rocks, and sculpt and use them to his own devious ends.
Before you think the kid can’t really known what he’s doing, the truth is that not only is he fully aware of what we can do but he takes immensely evil delight in doing it, caring not for lives lost, property wrecked or for the mental health and wellbeing of his mother Amber who is, for all intents and purposes, in an abusive relationship with her own son.
Matthew, his alias name which is most commonly used in the book, is psychotically evil in many respects, but Ford somehow also manages to convey how he’s also, in many important respects, a little lost boy, not for the purposes of excusing his actions, but to create a far more three-dimensional character, in keeping with the ethos that governs this brilliantly imaginative, thrilling and exciting book.
“If anything, the situation inside the baseball diamond if even worse. There are fewer wounded here, but all that means is they’re louder, and more likely to push you out as they move past. My PK gets a feel of watches, chains, wallets filled with coins, belt buckles – not to mention the world around me, plastic buckets and metal tent poles and M-16s. After someone shoves me aside for the third time, it’s very tempting to just grab the nearest object and start swinging.” (P. 228)
For if Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air is nothing else, and it is a lot of immensely good and hauntingly affecting things, where each character has to stare mortality in the face even as they grapple with narrative leaps and bounds so energetic, keep up with them is full-time job, it is a novel that understands that even big epic moments, the kind so beloved of blockbusters of all kinds, come with a very human cost.
Lives are lost, people lose their way, treasured things are upended and destroyed with no notice and casual, careless cruelty, and the world as you know is trashed and stomped like reckless giants drunkenly stumbling across a packed and microscopic landscape.
Yet for all the tension-packed, über-imaginative, steroid-enhanced moments in 500 pages of don’t-pause-for-breath action, we are also treated to the moving story of very human, broken people trying to come to terms with some pretty awful stuff.
It makes for great reading to see cities collapse and mountains tumble into the sea (figuratively speaking) but without the ceaseless, beating of the very human heart that powers them, books like Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air would feel empty and emotionally vacuous.
That is the very last thing that the high-octane adventure of Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air is, with Ford’s second masterful, gloriously over-the-top, emotionally rich entry in the Frost Files balancing fantastically larger-than-life twists and groundshakingly devastating turns with emotional journeys so intense and harrowing you feel like you’re taking a therapy session in a particularly aggressive blender, the kind from which escape may not be possible but you sure as hell hope the characters you love and intensely care about can manage to pull off if only because after going through so much, they deserve something good and enduring to go their richly-characterised way.