“Creepy Town”: Bookburners S02E01

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Bookburners S02E01: Creepy Town
by Max Gladstone
6.22.16
4.5 out of 5

When We Last Left Our Heroes…: Sal Brooks was an ordinary NYPD cop before she came across a particularly odd scene involving her brother, Perry, and a possessed book. She joined Team Three of the Societas Librium Occultorum and began to help track down magical objects across the world. After a particularly nasty possession and the ensuing fracas, darkness inside the Society has been cast out and they’re all beginning to rebuild. (A longer synopsis can be found at Serial Box and a review of Season One can be found here.)

Case of the Week: An entire town in Western Massachusetts has disappeared… at Halloween!

How It Went: Season Two of Bookburners kicks off with a bang, dropping us right in the middle of some frightening action with Sal on the run from something nasty. What are these beasts and where is the rest of the team? What on earth has happened on this campus?

This cold open gives way to an “Earlier” that sees Sal returning to the Vatican after a few months jetting around the globe in an attempt to track down her semi-angelic brother Perry, who bonded/merged with an angel (or what called itself an angel) upon his soul’s return from whatever Other World it had been held captive in at the end of last season, not unlike V’ger and Stephen Collins, in a way. I’m guessing that we haven’t seen the last of Perry/Aaron (Pearon? Aarry?) but, for now, nobody knows where he/they are – and Sal has bigger problems, like getting into the Archive. There’s a Swiss Guard posted up at the door and there’s a delightfully absurd back-and-forth between Sal and the guard before she attempts to juke past him and ends up in a tangle of guard and Liam.

Turns out, there’s heightened security – and the Archives have been totally rebuilt. Like, ground up redesign. It’s now a somewhat more manageable maze of shelves and it comes with, apparently, a whole staff. Asanti, graceful as ever, is now the head of a whole army of assistants (including a new supporting character, Frances, who is the super nerdy head of that support staff) – because she wants to be out in the field more, now that magic is (cautiously) allowed to be researched. It’s nice to see everyone again and author Max Gladstone doesn’t so much reintroduce anybody as just refresh them: if you missed season one, you’ll be lost but not so lost that you can’t pick it up in a minute or two. This ep definitely has some elements of being an on-ramp for new readers, if one that will likely send them back to Season One in short order.

There’s a flashback-within-a-flashback now as we see a kid on the run from some bullies on Halloween night. It’s my guess that readers of a series called Bookburners might’ve been, at some point, bullied and teased and chased – and I felt a sort of sweet sadness for this poor kid. I also wanted to know what his deal was, because clearly there’s something up.

What’s up, as it turns out, is that everybody at this school disappeared. We join the whole team (Grace has been brought out of candle-sleep) for a briefing and we find out that the Orb, previously so good at showing them magical outbursts, has gone a little haywire. Nobody’s quite sure why, although Asanti and her team are studying it closely – maybe it has to do with all the magical eruptions at the end of S1? Maybe magic is just returning more strongly to the world, overall? Maybe it’s running out of batteries? Who knows! I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough and, for now, there’s a case to solve. The team suits up while Father Menchú has a quick talk with Monseigneur Angiuli, now up for the head of the Society position. This series has a deft touch when it comes to politics and I appreciate that. There’s enough that we’re intrigued but not so much that we’re bored by it. I have the feeling that this is seeding the ground for later in the season, but I’ll be intrigued to see how it will go – will Angiuli actually get the gig? Will they bring in somebody else who disrupts Team Three’s methods? Will this be another damn CTU mole situation?

The team heads to New England – and boy oh boy there’s nothing better than New England in October. Creepy, crisp, and full of all kinds of possibility. The team has some easy banter about creepy towns, including Sal’s great deadpan of “This is just how towns look in Massachusetts”, as they arrive – and Gladstone delivers this terrific image of the five of them walking through this empty town: “Five ghosts trudging down a damp asphalt strip toward – what exactly?” They’re all five people outside of the world, which does count as being a kind of ghost, I suppose. As Season One went on, the writers room found the right balance of character development and exciting plots and it’s nice to see that they not only haven’t lost that keen equilibrium but that they’ve, in fact, gotten better: these little moments give the reader a thrill.

Speaking of thrills: the kid being chased by the bullies heads into the library… where he hears a book calling to him. He opens it and the book tells him “let’s make them run.” We then quickly see why Sal was running in the beginning – and why, now, the entire team is on the go. Something is chasing them, through the fog. In fact, something is chasing everybody but everybody seems… somehow on their own. Wonderfully, it’s Asanti who figures it out before anybody else: the creatures chasing them are entirely imaginary. This makes sense, that she’d be the one to solve the case first: the others are all figures of action, even Father Menchú, and so of course they move first and think second. They’re trying to defeat the beasts; Asanti realizes that there aren’t any beasts after all. A nice reminder, this case, that Asanti deserves to be out in the field with the rest of the team – and the promise, I hope, of more interesting and balanced adventures to come.

The case wraps up surprisingly quickly, honestly – certainly compared to some of their other adventures, even in the early days of Season One. Of course, this episode isn’t so much about the case as it is about reestablishing everybody back on the board for what’s to come and so I didn’t mind the relative slump of a denouement. I was too busy catching the FORESHADOWING of Liam telling Sal, in response to her saying “Everyone makes mistakes” that he “tend[s] to make big ones.” DUN DUN DUNNNN I wonder how long it’s going to take that statement to come back and bite Team Three in the collective ass.

But who cares about that, because the episode ends with everybody back at the Archive staring at the Orb – and the reveal that, once upon a once, there was a Team Four! My notes literally say “TEAM FOUR?!?!! WHAAAAAAAAT!” They apparently made the Orb and were expelled and, well, I guess we know what’s on deck for next week, huh?

Other Highlights:

  • A particularly timely reference to the “Enfield incident” – a notorious fake poltergeist/haunting that nonetheless partially inspired The Conjuring 2, scaring the daylights out of people in theaters now.
  • A totally random Sex Pistols reference that feels directly like the author’s voice cutting through the narration – but it isn’t distracting so much as it is hilarious.
  • Asanti, as it turns out, was an atheist before she came to work for the Vatican. Religion, surprisingly for being set in the Vatican, hasn’t ever been questioned or even really discussed all that much in this series. I’ll be curious to see if this comes back up at some point.

Author Bio:

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as @maxgladstone.

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