My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Only Human is the debut novel by JD Estrada, and the first in a series. The world-building here gets five of five stars. There’s a very rich imagination churning through these pages which kept me reading when otherwise I might have fallen off. I was confused and uncomfortable throughout the first third, stumbling alongside our courageous protagonist, Nathaniel, a human minority in a world full of demons, vampires, angels, therians, and a conscious plant kingdom. The story is ‘high fantasy’. An about-face for this career journalist turned author. You find yourself transported to various places (some on earth), from oceans to battlefields to forests to strange labyrinthine settings where shadows come to life and god knows what else. Step aside Naked Lunch, it’s time for dinner! The characters are quirky. Some are clearly dark and demonic, while others are beyond good and evil, and have settled into a murky (and endearing) gray area. A few fallen angels. And good news: the tired old morality play is mostly shoved in the trunk. Estrada emphasizes questions over answers. But there is a ripple through his universe which demands that an alliance form between disparate groups to defeat a vile enemy force, if only they can all get along for a minute.
Many of the characters enjoy deep and abiding friendships, particularly the vampires who have lived long enough to form them. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between Liam and Daniel and Nathaniel. Wonderful, cheeky dialogue. The main characters are robust. They cover a lot of ground, both physically and metaphysically. There are an awful lot of periphery characters (I had trouble keeping track of them all), and yet there is an unspoken ground always beneath them, which has something to do with mother’s lemon cake. The protagonist was endearing from the start, as he blunders his way through confusing new worlds and experiences; Nathaniel is an inquisitive human with a compelling sense of loyalty and justice. From the gate he is challenged by vampires who for some odd reason have decided to let him live (they will need him). He goes through many manipulations of body, mind and feeling, all of which are very well described. I got especially hooked when nature began to manifest around him in all sorta fascinating manner, just past the halfway point. Only as the story evolved did I begin to feel attached to his struggle in having to dig down deep to survive.
Nathaniel has to contend with the chaos and everyone around him, and when he exceeds everyone’s expectations, it does not go to his head. You get the sense that what he really has to contend with is himself. < sigh > Don’t we all? This is where he grabbed my heart. I really liked how loyal he was, putting his life on the line for his new friends. He has a wry sense of humor, I laughed many times. By the end I was pleasantly surprised by my own attachment to this story. I guess the emotional connect crept up on me. Which is good! I look forward to more adventures. This is an impressive and ambitious start for JD Estrada, and author with a talent for world-building and dialogue, and a most expressive imagination.