People keep comparing this book to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and I am here to just say no. The Woman with the Jack Daniels and Focalin Addictions series is far, far superior. Not only is Cass > Lisbeth by a hundred, Hand’s prose is > Larsson’s (or his translator’s) by infinity. Hand is not just a great storyteller, she’s an artist, and she brings this world alive in a way that rarely happens in “genre” fiction. The unique combination of setting, characters, and plot will have you checking the internet after you finish the novel to see what’s real and what came out of Hand’s head. You’ll find yourself wondering how she could possibly know about all this crazy shit, and how she can make up the fake stuff so convincingly. I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a genius, that’s all, and these works are wholly original and without comparison to anything else.
And thus begins my love letter to Cass Neary, the most intriguing and bad ass female anti-heroine to grace the pages of a novel since the incorrigible Moll Flanders. Cass Neary is not afraid. Of anything. Much like fellow bad ass the honey badger, Cass Neary does not give a shit. When Cass watches someone die, she doesn’t flip out and book thrice weekly sessions with her therapist to work through the trauma. Cass takes a picture of that shit, and a really beautiful picture, at that. Knock Cass unconscious and throw her into the middle-of-ice-desert-nowhere, Cass doesn’t wait for a hero to rescue her, and she certainly doesn’t die. She staggers along, helped just a little by her BFF Jack and fave party girl Tina, until she stumbles onto a warm place to crash.
In short, Cass Neary is not some sniveling tween, ‘fraidy-cat teen, or asocial twenty-something with daddy issues. Cass is a grown ass woman, and she does not need your shit. Unless your shit involves lots of Jack Daniels, amphetamines, art, and cash. Like the honey badger bitten by a cobra, Cass may eventually go down, but sooner or later, she shakes that shit off and goes right back at it. She may be flawed, but I’ll take her over a thinly disguised damsel in distress protagonist any ol’ time.
That Cass has survived as long as she has is a miracle, and a major part of her charm. Cass’s theme song is “My Way,” the Sid Vicious version. Through no fault or credit of her own, she’s made it to middle-age, through punk rock, 1970s East Village, New York, a violent rape, and her own attempts to self destruct. (And no, that’s not an error. Not only is she an insanely bad ass female protagonist that will eat you alive and pick her teeth with your bones, Cass is also middle- aged. Do you have any idea how incredible that is?!) She is a talented lady, so much so that she has become a cult figure in the photography world, renown for her book Dead Girls and her impeccable eye. Cass’s talent is the only thing that seems to frighten her. She can’t seem to beat it into submission, drink it into oblivion, or speed it out of her body. Her talent haunts her, and like any good neglected ghost, it keeps rearing its ugly head and dragging her into trouble.
In Available Dark, Cass has been asked to authenticate a series of photographs. Of beautifully staged murders. By a collector of murderabilia. She’s whisked off to Iceland by this collector to meet with the equally creepy photographer of the series, both of whom are killed within 24 hours of her touching down. Not long after, Cass finds herself up to her ass in whacked out Nordic Satanic cults, complete with Santa's evil sidekick (Satan Claus?), black metal, old lovers, and human sacrifice.
Did I mention ice? Because there’s ice everywhere. She’s in Ice-fucking-land, for fuck’s sake. Hand’s rendering of the depressed city of Reykjavik and the completely alien terrain of its surrounding emptiness is a character all its own. No matter how heavy things get, they are made heavier by the endless sea of ice and gloom. You will feel the wind rubbing your skin raw, the ice biting into your digits. Wrap up, and stay warm.
And the old lover, fellow bad ass Quinn O’Boyle. Can’t forget about him. Cass certainly couldn’t. It feels like we were only just getting to know Quinn when he had to split, but that’s ok, because before he bailed, he put Cass on the road to London, and the next novel. I’m not sure how I feel about ol’ Quinn just yet – he seems a little tricksie to me, and as I’ve maintained before, boys just fuck everything up – but watching Cass go her version of girly over him is endlessly entertaining. Still, I have a feeling that, not too far on the Cass Neary horizon, these two are going to meet in an epic battle royale. They’re both hard core, no comprises, no-one-left-standing Alphas, and we all know that sort of thing never works out.
I’m putting my money on Cass. O’Boyle doesn’t stand a chance, and neither do you, fair reader. If you’re coming to Available Dark a Cass Neary virgin, fine. The story is complete in and of itself, but just go ahead and read Generation Loss. Load up on Cass so you don’t get the DTs, because you will not be able to get enough of her. She is addictive in the best way imaginable. Once you’ve got both books in hand, put your cowboy boots on and hunker down for a tumble through a frozen hell on the back of a strung out modern day Valkyrie with nothing left to lose. You won’t regret it for a second, and you might even reach Valhalla. Just look out for Krampus and anyone pointing a camera your way.