'There were dozens of currents in thousands of directions, but with experience came intuition, like the magnet pull of a pigeon's beak. He sought Cynthia. In showing her the future he would prove to her his skill, and it would leave her in awe of him, and she would finally understand what he could do'
- 5%, Chapter 1
Déjà Moo: A Lawnmowers, Inc. Novel
by P.J Benney, 2016.
Please note: This book is only available on Kindle, therefore there are no page numbers in this review. The work is the property and copyright of P.J. Benney and I make no claims upon it.
In a world where History shakes his non-existent head, werewolves prowl the night and a pair of gay wizards enjoy a nice slice of cake, dumping your addict boyfriend can have disastrous consequences. Errol Sprigg is addicted to 'scrying', an illegal magical practice that allows the self-absorbed young wizard to see into 'the timestream'. The timestream can show him every possible future and his own past. Desperate to show Cynthia that he is not the wreck she believes him to be, he looks into her future. Errol sees his partner smiling and laughing with the "snob, playboy, attention-seeker" Daniel Wesley, the millionaire businessman of Lawnmowers Inc. Full of jealousy and panic, Errol's priority becomes preventing this future. He falls into the timestream, desperate to change this future. And why not punish Daniel Wesley by setting his sights on Lily, Wesley's beloved cow and mascot? What trouble could a lost cow possibly cause?
In this fantastic book, P.J. Benney combines urban fantasy with farmland. He seamlessly blends the magical world of witches, wizards and time-travel with a modern day London filled with politics and story-hungry journalists. The plot becomes progressively more complex but Benney is able to keep the reader engaged and the flow going, no easy feat when you are dealing with time-travel! There are many colourful, multi-dimensional characters in this book, which is something I personally love to see and it is refreshing to read an urban fantasy that actually likes people. Humanity is so often held up as a the benchmark for moral obscurity and power lust, that we often forget that there is just as much courage, love and camaraderie. Along with a wittiness that keeps the reader afloat of the darker themes in this book, Benney shows us the decent side of humanity and how sometimes we just want to do the right thing, but end up doing it the wrong way.
Before delving into some of the amazing characters Benney so vividly brings to life, I want to pause to applaud him on breaking a rule we were told never to break and getting away with it. As Roehampton alumni - though we did not study in the same years - one of the techniques we were warned against was 'head hopping'. This is where a writer hops from one character's POV (Point of View) to another, typically mid-paragraph or within the same scene.Let this not be confused with an 'omniscient POV story', which also shares different characters thoughts and feelings, but the narrative voice never changes, remains typically as a third-person 'god' figure. What Benney does veers - at this to me - towards head-hopping as while the story is told within a third-person narrative, the POV often dips into the characters internal dialogue.
Head-hopping often leads to whiplash for readers and a feeling of insincerity. The idea that the writer is happy to hop in-and-out of character's hearts and minds so freely gives the impression that he/she doesn't want to give these characters the depth and permanence they truly deserve. The narrative often becomes confusing and breaks intimacy with main characters.
Benney takes this rule, breaks it and makes it work. A lot of the switching is done through scene-changes, but also he'll pop between narrative voices in a crowded rule. We could hear five different voices in one chapter. However, somehow Benney does not lose his reader. Perhaps its the quirky genre choice, perhaps its the fact so many strange things are going on plotwise that we just accept this stylistic choice, or perhaps it is just the writer having a damn good time with his realistic characters. For whatever reason, I found myself marveling at Benney's rebellious and highly successful head-hopping style.
Without giving too much away, I would like to talk about Benney's wonderful main characters, in the hope you might pick up this book and find out more about them. We're first introduced to Cynthia Pannettière, who I would argue shares the role of the main character with Daniel Wesley. Cythnia is a witch who runs a meager occult shop that is fast going downhill, she specializes in healing magic but cannot prevent Errol from breaking himself apart with his dangerous activities. The timestream radiation is destroying Errol's body and his addiction is quickly getting out of control. Cynthia knows she can't fix him and that he will bring her down with him, so in a fit of anger she dumps him. When Errol disappears into the timestream and Lily goes missing, Cynthia decides to pack her bags and find a new life. But before she can do that Daniel Wesley, Detective Inspector Vincent Burgess and one very pissed-off werewolf invade her shop. Knowing Errol may be partially responsible for Lily's disappearance, Cynthia agrees to help Wesley find his cow.
Cynthia puzzled me at first. Certainly at the beginning I felt her motivations were all over the place, she didn't like Wesley but felt responsible for Errol, she would declare her aim to help him and then blame others for the mess. However, once the story progressed and Cynthia's personality solidified, she became a more dependable character. Her conflicted emotions and motivations are actually pretty on-key considering the turmoil that bursts into her life. At first I was angry and wanted the silly woman to make up her mind about her emotions, but then realized: how can anyone possibly decide how they feel when their whole life has gone up in smoke?
Now let us look at Daniel Wesley. I would argue his character arc is not wholly complete, which I say with the knowledge Benney is planning a sequel. Vet-turned-celebrity, Wesley [note: I call him 'Wesley' as that is what the other characters call him for the majority of the book], is a pompous, self-absorbed, vain playboy who claims he wants to retire, but moans when he suddenly doesn't possess the finer things in life. He is quite helpless when it comes to self-management and happily lets other people, such as his extremely-patient assistant Judith Sharma, run his life for him. He is recovering from being dumped by Cherry Cinnabon, a sickly-sweet news-reporter with zero tact, and he is generally sick of the spotlight. However, he is more than just a clueless woe-is-me millionaire. He genuinely cares about Lily and her fellow cows, championing them as more than meat and milk, but the perfect lawnmowers. He wants a quiet life where we can do what he loves: care for animals. Wesley has little aspirations beyond that. He is a self-made man and suddenly the world being made for him, around him, and he has little control over his life. So when Lily goes missing, the one thing he loves most is taken from him.
Where Cynthia is the expert of magic, Wesley knows how to engage their enemies on a political level, he knows how to play the game of news and media, what lies to tell and what information to give away. His expertise may be in livestock, but his life is about promotion and business. Between Wesley and Sharma, the characters have an advantage over their opponents, who are often too busy grappling for power that they can't see their own weaknesses.
The reason I say Wesley's arc is incomplete is because he doesn't change much. He gains more humility and worldly-wisdom, he learns to care for more things besides Lily, but these a very subtle changes. At the end, Wesley's viewpoint and interests are still quite narrow and self-motivated. I believe there is more to be done with this character.
There are many extraordinarily well-rounded characters in this book. I particularly enjoyed the senior wizard couple who, despite everything going on around them, still stop for a cup of tea. There is a trio of magical monks who spend their days playing tiddlywinks and understanding the mysteries of the universe. There is a brilliantly created singer who I hope appears more in the sequel, as the hints we get about her story lead me to believe she is more important than we might think. Then there is History, who rolls its eyes and has to put in extra hours in order to clean up the mess Errol leaves behind.
There environments Benney creates are extremely rich and tangible, never moving too far away from the modern world we know, allowing the read to be 'familiar with the strange'. One of my favourite environments was Cynthia's mothers' house where they have breakfast after escaping a werewolf. I don't know why it appealed to me so much, because it is only in the book for a few brief scenes at most. I think what I enjoyed most about the plotting of this story is the 'rest points' Benney threads within it. The story generally plods along at a fairly gentle pace up until the last few chapters. There is a 'slice of life' feel about this story, something very English. Even the main confrontation with a villainous media company is done around a restaurant table.
This is also a very brave book. Benney delves into topics that a lot of new writers shy away from - or go overboard with them because they are 'big topics' without stopping to consider their motivations for choosing that topic. I cannot reveal the topics here because the spoiler alarms would go off, but there are feminine issues that Benney deals with very well. He also understands human relationships intimately, he is able to weave their complexity easily into this story without choking the narrative. The balance between character and plot is never any easy one, if you throw in time-travel then it can be even harder, but Benney manages to do it with ease.