Series Breakdown Rating:
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Book 4 – ****
Part One: This Series Definitely Needed More Hillbilly Cannibals
This is the book where we see the origins of the last two major recurring characters – Arseface and Starr – each illustrated in a unique style just as the Saint of Killers’ backstory was. I like this design choice, and I think it is partly employed to emphasize that this story is about the three leads – their backstories are illustrated in the same style by the same artists, and are effectively continuous with the main plot. Everything else could almost be interpreted as world-building elements, asides that run parallel with the core of the story. The backstories are not, strictly speaking, necessary, but they are thematically relevant, and Starr’s in particular complicates him beyond the offshoot Bond villain he appears at first to be.
I’ve already talked at as much length as I particularly care to about Arseface, but I’ve only mentioned Starr a few times. As the Saint of Killers becomes a more neutral player in the series, receiving information from Jesse to make them even, Starr rises as the more prominent main antagonist. He’s an elite German military leader of a religious cult, with no apparent regard for human emotions or life, a penchant for command, unsettling fetishes, and a menacing appearance, complete with a star-shaped scar through his right eye. It would be beyond easy to write this character as the sort of evil world-destroying supervillain you might find in a Transformers or bad Marvel film, but he is not exactly that. Starr is intimidating and shows regularly that he has the cunning to plan for any eventuality, as well as the ability to assemble large forces and bend them to his command.
Starr is a very real threat to the main characters, yet his ultimate goal seems almost altruistic: to make Jesse the leader of the known world. Aside from the millions of deaths that would come about for him to enact his plan, this would seem a goal that the protagonists wouldn’t outright oppose. Starr’s role as an antagonist comes about simply because Jesse doesn’t really like him for threatening his friends. This places the antagonist in the curious position of becoming more and more desperate to use any means at his disposal to coerce Jesse into doing what he wants, which in turn leads to Starr making mistakes, becoming frustrated, getting screwed over, and growing increasingly enraged.
The few oversights he makes lead to this usually serious and dangerous person ending up powerless and completely losing his composure. Few moments in the series are funnier than these. The character’s anger becomes a steadily more important plot point, as by the end of the series, Starr’s carefully calculated plan has degenerated into screaming and yelling at as many people as he can to attempt one seemingly simple thing. In the latter half of this book, the audience sees the first real suggestion that he is leaning toward a revenge-based quasi-resolution to his problem when he gets his leg eaten by mine-dwelling hillbilly cannibals. Because if anyone in this book was going to get his leg eaten by hillbilly cannibals, it was always going to be Starr.
Part Two: The Hillbilly Cannibal Subplot Is Interspersed with this One. I’m Dead Fucking Serious.
Like in the second book, the role the Grail plays in this one leads to a great deal of action and mayhem – in fact, easily the most we see at any point in the series, with tanks, machine guns, and a nuclear bomb used in a futile attempt to off the Saint of Killers. Starr is stuck dealing with an insubordinate drill sergeant, the Saint is unsurprisingly tank-proof, Tulip gets some good moments with a mini gun, and both Cassidy and Jesse do about fuck all for the entirety of the battle. Seriously, Jesse gets shoved and then yells at some people, and Cassidy crashes a pickup for the third time in four books, and both of them have to be rescued by another protagonist at least once.
As one might imagine, the fight – set appropriately in Monument Valley – is punctuated with a healthy dose of humor, which is one of the series’ strongest points. The battle only really spans two chapters – about fifty pages – but it’s well-paced and tense. The bulk of the rest of the book involves the setup for the fight and falling action to deal with the fallout (figuratively and literally). The chapters surrounding the main fight are quieter and, as you might expect, character-focused. Also hillbilly cannibal-focused.
The love fishing pole is back, and while I’m not a huge fan of its general existence, I do have to admit that it probably makes the most sense here out of any of the books. As I mentioned in the previous review, the love fishing pole isn’t really here to be a love triangle – two of the characters are solidly involved with one another, and the shoddiest connection imaginable links the intruding party to either of the others from a romantic standpoint. I could legitimately believe Cassidy hitting on Jesse before him hitting on Tulip based on the buildup of the previous books, but this is where things stand. Appropriately, Tulip shows no interest because why the fuck should she? She declines to let Jesse know about it for the sake of his feelings, and she lets Cassidy stick around for the same reason on the condition that he leaves her alone. When that turns into too much of an ask, she cautiously agrees to give him a second chance, as she has Jesse on multiple occasions, not really taking Cassidy seriously but taking pity on him for what she perceives to be a character flaw. Tulip’s starting to become aware of the sort of person Cassidy might actually be, but her inclination to continue thinking of him as a hapless idiot and her reluctance to make good on her promise to sever his relationship with Jesse should he keep pestering her has started to push her into a corner. She’s unhappy with the situation but doesn’t quite have the means to resolve it without blowback.
Cassidy, meanwhile, remains a protagonist in the series, meaning his personal character development, his relationship with Jesse, and the other things the audience has come to like about him are still part of the story. It’s just that now we also get to see glimpses of the much worse person he can be as well. This is an unsettling effect that comes to its head in this book. Cassidy recognizes that hitting on his best friend’s girlfriend is a dumb idea, and that he’s not scoring any brownie points with Tulip for it either. His interest in her seems to be mainly sexual, as he has no real reason to want her emotionally, but after the events in the last book, he does seem to show legitimate regret for what he’s done. Tulip’s offhand suggestion that he’s a prick when he’s drunk hits a nerve hard enough to make him try sobriety, and while sober he does show enough restraint not to point-blank ask her to fuck him. His sobriety lasts all of about three pages, of course, Cassidy having all the willpower of a toddler confronted with an unguarded box of crayons, but his later attempts at restraint suggest his regret is more than just an act – right up until the point where it isn’t.
The subplot comes to a head when Jesse falls out of an airplane, presumed dead by both of the other protagonists. Tulip returns to drinking and starts doping herself up with tranquilizers, reaching a point between her grief and befuddled state of mind that she starts to consider whether the love fishing pole might be a valid option. I don’t think this particular plot point is quite in-line with her character, drugs aside, but the suggestion in the book is that she’s gone for months being distraught from losing Jesse and hasn’t been able to move on. She’s in a pit and rather than wanting to accept what’s happened, she desperately wants for it to not have happened at all. In her hazy state of mind, she’ll settle for any delusion that will let her pretend to have him back, and given the series’ established parallels between Jesse and Cassidy, he’s the most accessible option.
Cassidy, meanwhile, is caring for her in what way he can, mainly by enabling her addiction and occasionally trying to comfort her or encouraging her to move on. Curiously, the love fishing pole doesn’t come up until Tulip suggests it, and even then, despite his previously established infantile self-control, Cassidy is far from jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of her state. He is likewise coping with Jesse’s death, seeing his keeping Tulip semi-functional something of a responsibility to Jesse. Inevitably, though, Cassidy’s weak will wins out and he uses Tulip’s depravity as an excuse to get in bed with her.
By the end of the book, his real character becomes clear. Aside from effectively non-consensual sex, Cassidy begins to manipulate Tulip by encouraging her to stay drugged, keeping her from contacting the outside world, and feeding her lies to get her to stay with him, growing increasingly more possessive and predatory.
I’m still pretty torn about this subplot. As mentioned, I greatly dislike its sudden appearance without any lead-in, and rape is something I generally feel most fictional stories don’t need to use for plot purposes. That said, I think the transformation of a likable character into a despicable one is a story component with considerable narrative weight, and knowing how the series deals with the ramifications of the subplot in the next two books, I do think this sequence is somewhat vital to the series. I have to wonder what would happen if this book had held off on the abusive aspect of the sequence and left that for the next one. There are ways to improve this subplot and make it work better within the narrative framework – not singling out Tulip to victimize, for instance. However, for what it is and how it came about, the abusive relationship at the very least offers a starting point for the much meatier subplot of how to deal with asshole Cassidy.
Part Three: Speaking of Hillbilly Cannibals…
That was depressing. Let’s abruptly shift gear and talk about this book’s stupid parts. I feel like the overt faults in this volume are somewhat unimportant, and when I say “stupid” what I really mean here is “unnecessary.” Compared to the next book, the filler is minor and easily ignored, usually interspersed with something that is at the very least more engaging. I put this book at a four-star rating after going back and forth between three and four stars for a while, because I genuinely love the action and character interactions, but there is more unnecessary material, especially toward the latter half, than I feel I can easily overlook. The first half of the book flies by so quickly and is packed with so much information that I had it in my mind for a long while that this book was actually two separate volumes. The events after the plane crash track about four plot threads – Cassidy and Tulip, Jesse recovering from the fall, Starr and his adventures with hillbilly cannibals, and Arseface’s rise to fame.
I have talked plenty about Arseface already, though I will note that this is where the series delves into his backstory. We also get a short chapter featuring his butt-themed fantasies.
Okay, moving on. Starr is kidnapped by mine-dwelling hillbillies and chained to a wall, unable to reach the outside world and use his tremendous theoretical influence to get him out of this situation. He eventually learns that they amputated his leg, not to save his life after his helicopter crashed, but because they were hungry. While amusing and bizarre, this plot thread does end with Starr having to wipe one of the cannibals’ asses, so that’s a thing. It does expand on the character’s emotional limitations, as most of his failures do, which is fun.
The audience doesn’t see how, but Jesse survived the plane crash and bomb explosion with a missing eye and little other physical damage, and is nursed back to health over the course of a month by a crazy little man living in the desert called Johnny Lee Wombat. His backstory is utterly unnecessary, but it’s also hilarious; after fudging his way into the astronaut training program and being kicked out immediately, he adopts the life goal of sending NASA a personal “fuck you” by way of a large swatch of desert and some dynamite. Oddly enough, this is one of the many plot threads that gets a resolution in the last book.
I wish the book waited longer to reveal that Jesse survived, simply because I think it would give more weight to Tulip and Cassidy’s grief, though I suppose given Tulip’s death in the first book it isn’t entirely in the series’ interest to keep the audience waiting long to see if a character is really dead or not. The original comic release doubtless played a role in this structural choice, as a full chapter goes by without indication of Jesse’s survival and would have initially been buffered by two months of waiting. Regardless, Jesse is alive, he stumbles upon Tulip and Cassidy without their knowing, understandings are misunderstood, and he passes out on the sidewalk for some unspecified amount of time, ushering in the drudgery of Book Five.
Before we move on, however, we get a final backstory chapter that perplexes me almost as much as Arseface. You remember those goons that hung around Jesse’s grandmother, Jody and T.C.? You know, the ones who died in Book One and for the most part haven’t come up in conversation or flashback since? Yeah, they get to go on an adventure. It’s written like an intentionally tropey 1980s action flick, has less than zero connection to the main plot, and almost as much to the parts of the story they were in. At least the Arseface subplot occasionally involved the main characters.
The only explanation I’ve been able to devise in my head is that this might be something of a fever dream for Jesse, given that we last saw him passed out on the sidewalk and he’s the only character who would be likely to have a fever dream about these characters. Viewed from that angle, certain features of this chapter become oddly telling, like how the 80’s action hero and obligatory love interest bear some superficial resemblance to Jesse and Tulip, how the action star feels emasculated and loses the girl to Jody, and how in this chapter, Jody is portrayed as a specimen of ideal male physique. The fever dream interpretation doesn’t quite work out in all areas, and the chapter could easily be cut all the same, but I would encourage readers to look into it more simply because it is so out of place. Maybe if we collectively stare at it longer, we can force it to make sense.