Book Review: Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti

Bad Power, Deborah Biancotti
Twelfth Planet Press
October 2011
RRP: $18 Australian

I first heard of Deborah Biancotti two years ago at a Conflux Convention. I encountered her in a crime panel when I decided to break up my steady diet of epic fantasy, doctor who and steampunk panels with some discussion of the police procedural. Her books sounded like a deliciously wicked blend of speculative fiction and gritty police drama along the lines of the stuff Robson Green did in shows like Touching Evil and Wire in the Blood. Besides, Deborah was so entertaining at the Ditmar Awards that I decided to follow up on her work. As usual, my backlog of books ran away from me and it took me an entire year to read Bad Power, a collection of five linked short stories which combine gritty police procedural with supernatural abilities in an Australian setting.

From the blurb:

Hate superheroes?
Yeah. They probably hate you, too.

‘There are two kinds of people with lawyers on
tap, Mr Grey. The powerful and the corrupt.’
‘Thank you.’
‘For implying you’re powerful?’
‘For imagining those are two different groups.’

From Crawford Award nominee Deborah Biancotti
comes this sinister short story suite, a pocketbook
police procedural, set in a world where the victories are
only relative, and the defeats are absolute. Bad Power
celebrates the worst kind of powers both supernatural
and otherwise, in the interlinked tales of five people —
and how far they’ll go.

I loved this read. First of all there is the language. Such unusual, disturbing and beautiful use of language. The only other writer I know of who operates in the same language space is Margo Lanagan, whose novel Sea Hearts is one of the best I’ve ever read in the genre. Back to Biancotti. I felt like I could visualize everything that happened in all five stories. At the same time, there was a cynical realness to dialogue that grounded me in the moment.

The collection is also clever and fairly unique because of the way that each story ties explicitly into the next. Setting and characters carry over, revealing gradually more and more about the world of Bad Power. This also means that interesting characters bound up in noir ambiguity, darkness and light and confusion and pain can make continual comebacks. My favourite stories were those that featured Detective Palmer, she who slowly begins to realise that there are people in this world with powers, some of them used for good, some for bad and all leading back to the mysterious Grey Institute. In particular, Palming The Lady and Cross That Bridge stand out. It probably goes without saying that Detective Palmer is a wonderfully feminist character.

Bad Power is exceptionally well written, but it is also exceptionally smart, investigating the common crime themes of corruption, power play and desire through the lens of humans who discover their super powers and begin to use them for ill as much as for good. Powers might vary, Biancotti seems to say, but human foibles do not, with even the police force having their moments of greed and doubt and insecurities. You’d think that this would make for a rather depressing read, and it does to an extent, but Biancotti is humanist and small acts of kindness and decency protect against a modern world which smothers us in deception and lies and deceit.

This book was so good I teetered on the verge of giving it five stars. The only reason I haven’t is because the story ends in medias res with quite a few elements unresolved. I presume this is because Deborah is working on the novels or a follow up collection set in the same universe. If she isn’t there is no justice in this world and I will chuck a temper tantrum. This is the most I’ve enjoyed a short story collection since Gaiman’s Fragile Things.

Bad Power: 4.5/5 inky stars

You can purchase Bad Power from Twelfth Planet Press here. Other books by Deborah Biancotti are A Book of Endings and The Dead Shall Outnumber The Living from the Ishtar anthology.

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