Review: Central Park Knight

By Joshua Reynolds

Henderson, C.J. Central Park Knight. TOR Books, 2011. USD $15.99. ISBN: 9-780765-320841.

There’s something about C.J. Henderson’s writing that’s just plain invigorating, in my opinion. For all its rough patches (and there are a few), the sheer exuberance with which this man writes makes his work ever-so compelling. Central Park Knight is no exception.

A sequel to 2009’s Brooklyn Knight, which first introduced us to Professor Piers Knight of the Brooklyn Museum, Central Park Knight begins with a bang and doesn’t let up until the final paragraphs. Knight, a (not-so) humble professor and one of the directors of the Brooklyn Museum, is an interesting addition to the plethora of paranormal heroes currently causing the speculative fiction shelves in bookstores to bend alarmingly. With knowledge of the occult that is less professional than patchwork, Knight is a man quite clearly aware of his own limitations and the moments of doubt and fear that Henderson allows us to witness do much to bring home the sheer magnitude of the threats Knight is facing. Which, in this case…are dragons.

Shades of Marvel Comics’ Fin Fang Foom (His Back Shatters Mountains!), Henderson’s dragons are less monolithic medieval monsters and more incalculable alien intelligences, with often-threatening quirks and always-dangerous agendas. Highly intelligent, capricious and capable of changing shape, the dragons are a threat quite unlike the usual run-of-the-mill, urban fantasy baddies. Caught between two of the beasts, both of whom he has a less-than-stellar history with, Knight is forced to pull out all of the stops in an effort to save humanity from enslavement, at best, and utter destruction, at worst.

That said, the plot of Central Park Knight is less a layer cake than a bullet. Henderson’s style contributes to this, being pulpy and blunt. At times, Henderson’s writing is almost too much so of the latter, having a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, but it’s a small failing and, considering just how much is going on, it can be forgiven by readers who don’t mind a bit of soap opera in their entertainment. The action sequences are pleasingly over-the-top, yet never dip too far into comic-book territory. Knight, rather than being an invincible hero, gets banged about quite a bit, both physically and emotionally, despite recovering with an almost-cinematic speed. The melodrama never gets out of hand, instead providing a nice counterpoint to the quiet moments that Henderson sprinkles throughout the book.

Henderson is an old hand at this sort of story and it really shows in the effortless way he constructs the plot. In the hands of another writer, Central Park Knight might well have been a paint-by-numbers urban fantasy, but Henderson employs a lively, tongue-in-cheek, kitchen-sink approach to things that gets the reader in the mood to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

As protagonists go, Piers Knight is a familiar face. The last wise man who, with a bit of effort, can produce whatever is needed to solve the problem at hand, after a satisfactory amount of flailing about. Knight ably fills the shoes previously worn by Anton Zarnak (a character Henderson is familiar with), Jules Le Grandin and Dr. Strange. Occult artifacts litter his cramped office and his associates are scientists, government agents and political officials. This isn’t to say the character is boring…Henderson makes Knight unique enough to be entertaining and sympathetic, in and of himself, rather than because he’s the designated protagonist.

Unfortunately, the desperate nature of Knight’s predicament, and his protestations of being out of his depth, are countered by the ease with which he comes up with a solution to the problem at hand. Too, there’s a bit more telling than showing at times in regards to Knight’s intelligence, wit and abilities. It creates a very pulp-y vibe, but not in a good way. Still, when Henderson does get around to showing us his hero’s stuff, it’s in a satisfyingly effective manner.

Besides Knight, the book introduces a slew of side characters, several of whom don’t make it to the end of the book intact. These secondary and tertiary characters are entertaining, but they’re not fleshed out to any great degree. At times, it’s hard to keep track of who they are and what they’re doing, besides the requisite sidekick and love interest. Of these two, the former gets several nice moments in the limelight, despite serving as a bit of an authorial mouthpiece. The latter, however, functions mostly as stage-dressing, doing little besides setting the plot in motion and then settling down to display concern for Knight at appropriate moments. It’s a bit disappointing, as Henderson normally has a flair for female characters. The thinness of the side characters is unusual, as well, and several are introduced only to provide a moment of pathos, as they are summarily dispatched during the climactic showdown, which isn’t as satisfying as it should be.

Despite its flaws, Central Park Knight manages to carry the reader along at a break-neck pace. It’s a credit to Henderson’s writing that you don’t notice the problems with it until after you put the book down, and you don’t want to put it down until you’ve finished it. As stated earlier, there’s a breathless exuberance to Henderson’s writing; it’s a potent stew of familiar tropes and enthusiastic craftsmanship that makes for a thoroughly satisfying reading experience. Basically, if you’re looking for some nice, pulpy fun, then this book is for you. I, for one, can’t wait for the next book in the series.

Central Park Knight is available from Amazon. You can learn more about the book and the author by visiting C.J. Henderson’s website: http://www.cjhenderson.com/.