I picked up Daniel José Older's Midnight Taxi Tango without having read its preceding volumes — partly to see how well it stands alone, and partly on the strength of last year's Shadowshaper, which left me hungry for more of Older's voices, his families, and for a Brooklyn that was more stomping-ground than film set. I loved Shadowshaper for upending the usual hierarchies of worth — celebrating rap, graffiti and salsa as crucial art forms, and showing a deep suspicion of institutions and authorities.
And I was delighted to find all the above in Midnight Taxi Tango, and something more: a deep vein of pain and rage that Older never diminishes, mocks or apologizes for. I'm also happy to say I had no trouble following the characters or plot, and that the exposition is pretty seamless. Where I felt the absence of familiarity was in the introduction of secondary characters; there I sometimes got the sense that I should be knocked backwards by a connection or line of dialogue, but lacked the knowledge necessary to feel the full effect.
Carlos Delacruz — ghost-slayer and half-dead hero of Half-Resurrection Blues — investigates a series of unusual deaths in Von King park that suggest supernatural involvement. Carlos is himself haunted by halves: half-songs, half-memories of his pre-death days, and the elusive trail of his former lover, Sasha. Meanwhile, Kia Summers — teenage shop-keeper, capoeira student, music-lover — mourns the seventh anniversary of her cousin Gio's disappearance, and Reza Villalobos — dapper gun-wielding protection detail of one — refuses to accept the loss of her lover, Angie. As all three pursue the threads of their losses, their paths cross and tangle; they uncover pieces of each other's mysteries and chip away at the sinister force responsible for their pain.
I could read a novel-length weather report written in the voices of Older's characters. Their cadences are musical and real, their thoughts unflinching and sometimes unabashedly graceless, and to see them fight and figure themselves and others out over the course of terse stand-offs and grudging conversations is wonderful. Of the main characters, Kia was my absolute favorite: raw, honest, fierce, hurting, beautifully self-aware. Her thoughts are often punctuated by rap lyrics from King Impervious (who Shadowshaper readers may remember as Izzy's stage name), and shockingly — unlike most italicized poetry in fantasy novels — there is real searing beauty to them: I am the riot son / the king of chaos come ... / come chaos, come from the barrel of the gun
Kia is rude, angry, and perfect — the kind of female character I wish I could find leading more YA novels. I hope to see more of her in future books.
As tremendous as the voice-work is, Midnight Taxi Tango's plot is less narrative engine than incidental scaffolding on which to hang fulfilling conversations. Our heroes learn what they need to know about their antagonists in a very straightforward, linear way: go to this person for answers, now that person for more. The information-dumps feel ultimately tangential to the work of building trusting relationships and revealing personal histories, and as horrifying as the supernatural antagonists are, the keener horrors are the revelations of betrayal and complicity among our heroes and their own.
This is very similar to my experience of reading Shadowshaper — the sense that the plot is actually somewhat beside the point — and it's worth restating that storytelling and plot-conveyance are actually two very different, though frequently overlapping, things: There is far more story told in Kia's confrontation with two white teenagers in her botànica than in the revelation of what the monsters are and how they function.
The more of Older's books I read, the more I come to grips with how many ways there are to tell a story — and just how many stories there are to be told.