Series Breakdown Rating:
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Book 2 – ****
Part One: Seriously, How Many Times Are These Characters Going to Be Kidnapped?
The first book was slow to start but redeemed itself in the latter half; the second is a wild ride through and through. The structure of this book is more cohesive overall – rather than being separated into three distinct sections each centered around a disparate subplot, the book opens with three unconnected subplots that slowly converge, leading to a single main thread centered around two of the leads travelling to France to rescue the other.
Like each portion of the first book, Book Two starts in a new location. Some months have passed since Angelville, and Jesse and Tulip decide to reunite with Cassidy in San Francisco. Things have been going poorly for our briefly abandoned Irish friend with his girlfriend dead from an overdose that Jesse and Cassidy learn was hastened by her involvement in a heroin trade deal. The main trio set about looking for the people responsible, namely the players involved in the second initial subplot of the book – two associates of orgy host Jesus DeSade, the man who ordered and never received the heroin bricks. The third subplot is the most relevant of the three, introducing the new lead villain, Herr Starr, and a strange society of Christians called the Grail. Starr is already involved in a conspiracy within the organization from the moment we meet him and pointedly set on retrieving Jesse Custer for his own purposes. Each of these parties converge on a very different sort of party at DeSade’s mansion, where Cassidy (and Tulip, for a shorter time) are captured by Starr’s men.
The story splits once again as the characters are separated, following Jesse and Tulip as they rush to France to catch up with Starr and Cassidy, the latter of whom is (poorly) pretending to be Jesse. From the protagonists’ perspective, and to a lesser degree the villain’s, this book’s driving plot is considerably more personal and emotionally motivated than most of those in the previous novel. Jesse and Tulip are rescuing their friend out of camaraderie, and Cassidy is in this mess partly because of a failed attempt to keep the other two from getting hurt or captured.
The villain’s motivation is somewhat more complicated, but also refines to self-preservation and personal goals. The Grail’s intent is to bring on the apocalypse and unite all of humanity under the rule of Jesus’ great-somethingth grandson, who, thanks to the Grail’s two millennia of inbreeding, is a bit of a unibrowed mess. Starr lacks the, let’s call it faith, of the Grail in the severely inbred new messiah and is intent on undermining his organization in order to impose a different, more credible ruler for humanity. Jesse happens to come with magic powers, which is a bonus in Starr’s book.
That the Grail has anything to do with God is incidental, as is, we eventually learn, the reason Jesse even showed up on Starr’s radar. The sidetracks are generally frontloaded and the story is about the characters first and foremost. That doesn’t stop the tension from ramping up for the book’s climax, though. Naturally Cassidy gets discovered as a fraud, which puts Starr on high alert for Jesse and Tulip’s arrival in France, just as Starr’s boss, decidedly not part of Starr’s mutiny, arrives for a surprise visit.
To make things more exciting, just as Jesse shows up, who else should join the party but the Saint of Killers?
Part Two: The Protag’s Girlfriend
Part of what I enjoy about this book is that it fleshes out the two sub-protagonists to the point where they become just as central to the story as Jesse. We got a sense of who Tulip and Cassidy were character-wise in the last book, but Jesse’s character took precedence while what was shown of the other two was really just a glimpse into their standard personalities – Tulip as the love interest, and Cassidy as the best friend, both highly archetypical golden trio side pillars. Here, both are placed in a variety of new situations that allow them to express themselves as characters who could easily carry their own stories.
Tulip, who didn’t really get much to do in the last book but be kidnapped and killed, and who seemed somewhat suspect in the realm of firearms, gets multiple occasions to show her combat prowess by taking on Starr’s men roomfuls at a time. She and Jesse hold long, mostly naked, conversations about searching for God and feminist ideology, and these moments give her opportunity to share her voice, including reflections on events in previous books. She goes oddly absent on multiple occasions, leaving the boys to bond I suppose, but when all three characters are in the same room, her vibrancy completes the character triangle. Tulip’s role in the story is largely to act as a voice of reason, a grounded person compared to Jesse and Cassidy’s often childish ways of resolving problems. Tulip does not have supernatural powers, so she tends to make up for what she lacks in an innate advantage with control over what she does. Jesse and Cassidy kill people willy-nilly, often accidentally or out of spite. Tulip’s body count isn’t nearly as high, but every person she’s actively killed in this series so far has been someone threatening her directly. The Angelville characters are dead, she’s alive, they’ve got God on the run, and her mind is focused on progressing the plot (well, that and fucking like bunnies).
Unfortunately for her, Jesse never learned a healthy way to cope with trauma. While Tulip seems to think little of their experience in Angelville, eager to have it out of her head and move on, Jesse is still visibly reeling from the experience. Tulip accommodates him as a friend and a lover, joining him in San Francisco despite her reservations about Cassidy, aiding their search for Desade in his mansion, and chasing Starr to France, all because these things are important for Jesse. She has her limits, though, and when Jesse offers to leave her in town while he goes to storm the Grail’s distant refuge, Masada, she refuses point-blank. Her reasoning isn’t faulty, either; she proves herself capable in battle and Starr proves himself capable of working around Jesse’s Genesis powers. She’s not going to be much safer on her own and they stand a considerably better chance of success if she’s there for backup, which she explains to Jesse on multiple occasions to quell his irrational fears. She prompts Jesse to trust her to have his back, and yet she still gets duped when Jesse runs off to fight the climactic battle while she’s asleep.
As much as I dislike her absence from the climax of the book, the scene where she wakes up and discovers what Jesse has done is pivotal to her larger story arc. She’s mainly angry, understandably, but also distraught at being betrayed and made to feel useless by a person who has only just made reparations for abandoning her before. This time, Jesse doesn’t have the excuse of relatives holding him at gunpoint. He made his decision, and while his fear of losing Tulip again is clearly on his mind, I get the sense that his inability to separate himself from the lone hero mentality of how he was raised is also a contributing factor in his decision. Cassidy is pretending to be him, so Jesse feels direct responsibility for what happens to him, no help allowed. With Tulip as his girlfriend again, too, he feels a man-urge to keep his possessions from getting damaged. He tells himself and Tulip otherwise, but this is one of the first instances where we see his problematic mindset and the way it influences his actions.
The ending still leaves me sour on the idea that Tulip gets abandoned by the story just as much as by Jesse, though. Couldn’t she have sneaked her way into Masada anyway? Couldn’t we have seen her at least do something after being abandoned? How did she get back to New York without any money?
Then again, it’s not like Cassidy’s doing much better to contribute to his own rescue.
Part Three: The Protag’s Boyfriend
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Cassidy. Even accounting for his absence in the last third, he really doesn’t do much to contribute to the plot of the first book. Aside from offering transport, his most prominent actions are to crash through a windshield in a failed rescue attempt and to introduce the others to a serial killer who tries to murder them. Good job, there. He spends most of this book trying to get away with the world’s worst Texas accent and lying on the ground getting shot, but even that’s enough to cement the character as one of the permanent three protagonists, and with good reason.
Like Tulip, Cassidy plays an archetype that has been done to death but adds enough nuance to make the role feel tailored to the character instead of the reverse. He’s largely comic relief for the audience, being both the most vocal of the characters and the least restrained, essentially making him the idiot man-child the other protagonists keep around because they like him. Cassidy is written to be a likable character. Being likable is arguably his most important character trait because it gets people (characters and audience alike) to forgive his worse qualities. Granted, at this point in the story, he’s only about as much of an asshole as your run-of-the-mill action sidekicks get – he lives in squalor, complains about anything, lies, cheats, has no sense of responsibility, or duty, or dignity, or patience, he’s an alcoholic, a drug user, a freeloader, a fuck-up, occasionally an idiot, a terrible judge of character, and, oh by the way, he’s also a murderous vampire. But, at the same time, he’s about as likeable of a murderous vampire as you’re going to find. Despite everything else, Cassidy’s very few good qualities, like his humor, his recognition of his own faults, and his occasional attempts to do the moral thing, seem to make his worse qualities a lot easier to forgive, or at the very least, to forget.
The main thing Cassidy serves as in this book is as a friend to Jesse. He doesn’t do any single significant thing warranting a strong friendship, aside from perhaps being witness to much of the A-plot phenomena. Rather, his relationship with Jesse is something that grows on small moments like conversations about Laurel and Hardey and the moral responsibility of keeping a post-bar fight tab. Their mannerisms around one another, the natural flow of the dialogue, and even the framing of the characters’ faces works to imprint in the mind of the audience that these two are good friends. The end result is effective; as soon as Jesse and Cassidy walk into a room together, you immediately know they’ve got each other’s backs, that they each know each other’s favorite movie quotes, that they can talk about their feelings without ever considering it awkward, and that at some point they have probably passed out leaning against each other on a couch. That’s just the sort of relationship these characters have.
For those wondering, no, sadly, the gay subtext remains subtext (at least most of the time). However, that doesn’t stop their friendship from being one of if not the most stable relationships in this series, right down to them declaring their love for one another, unashamed, on multiple occasions. They thoroughly demonstrate this over the course of the series as well; the plot of this very book is a literal show of how far Jesse will travel for the sake of his friend.
So, about that vampire thing. As it turns out – and this should come as no surprise – Cassidy, as well as being personality deficient, has no particular combat or physical skills in general. At one point in this book, he falls out of a window while chasing a cat. Given that Tulip and Jesse find themselves under fire from secret religious societies and undead cowboys alike, I assume the creators of the comic needed a way for Cassidy to not die instantly during the trio’s first firefight. The solution they devised was that he’s a vampire. Why a vampire, specifically, in a series whose lore mainly revolves around Abrahamic mythology? I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but neither the characters nor the book series itself seem terribly interested in exploring it. The bottom line is that Cassidy can’t be killed by anything but sunlight.
As you might imagine, this causes some trouble for Starr, who is used to having people stay dead when he kills them. It doesn’t take long for Starr to realize the photosensitive Irishman he has captured is not the mystical Texas preacher he was hoping to turn into the new Jesus. From them on, Cassidy becomes bait for Jesse and a punching bag for Starr to take out his frustrations, and Starr is a man with many frustrations. As acting damsel-in-distress, Cassidy’s role in this story is mainly to be rescued by Jesse and Tulip.
Once that happens, we get a final two chapters of him and Jesse conversing back in New York. Actually, Cassidy’s backstory takes up most of these chapters as he relays to Jesse his participation in the Easter Rising of 1916 (one of the relatively few subjects he knows well), his becoming a vampire, and his eventual immigration into the U.S. These chapters are among the best demonstrations of what makes this character interesting, not just because they flesh out his past and show more tender bromance moments between him and Jesse, but also because they illustrate how little the audience, or the characters for that matter, know who this guy is. You’d be easily forgiven, for instance, for not realizing which of the characters in the flashback is Cassidy at first, as that’s technically his surname. It isn’t too difficult to imagine the character in the flashbacks turning into the character we’ve come to know – he’s always been a bit of a fuck-up and over the decades, we see him gradually become similar to the present-day character. However, there are little details in the backstory that raise small questions, like how this is the first time we’ve seen him not wearing sunglasses of some sort, or how the backstory is explicitly bereft of any mention of drugs despite Cassidy’s previous indication of his involvement with heroin. The unexplained details don’t necessarily call into question the rest of the story, but they do suggest that it’s incomplete and that perhaps, despite Cassidy sharing his history with Jesse as a thanks for being rescued, there are things in his past that he won’t share willingly even to him.