For some reason I had it in my head that this was an Indiana Jones type adventure, with perhaps a dash of Dirk Pitt thrown in, which made for a few awkward first chapters. Once I had a chance to check out the cover blurb online, and reset my expectations to urban fantasy monster fun, I settled right in and enjoyed myself.
Before we get into the story itself, I have to say Max Cutter and The First Black Book is an odd sort of narrative. At first, I found that it read a lot like a YA novel that's been spiced up for adults, in that it's often silly and juvenile, and some of the characters are as thin as their motivations. Eventually, however, I found myself adjusting to Jacob Tate's sense of humor, and I realized he was just having fun, conventions of the genre be damned.
As for Max, once I aligned myself to Tate's sense of humor, I quite liked him. He's neither the perfect hero nor the bumbling sidekick, but something in between. Imagine, if you will, Xander Harris (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) all grown up, out of school, and investigating those myths and monsters dismissed by Giles. That should give you a good sense of who Max is and why he rides that fine line between embarrassing and entertaining. Fortunately for me, I always like Xander, so Max and I hit it off perfectly.
The other characters don't get nearly that level of depth, with many of them no more than names and faces. The villains of the piece are worthy of Max's attention, and even if I would have liked them to be a bit more rounded, they're entirely suitable to the tale. In fact, they propel the novel much deeper into old fashioned, supernatural horror than you might expect from the way the book begins, but that darker edge served to balance the humor, redeeming (and even justifying) some of Max's sillier moments of cocky vanity.
Overall, this was a quick, fun read that doesn't require too much thought. It moves at a quick pace, has an easy style, and enough imagination to back it all up. It's also full of pop culture references - some of them so subtle I wondered if it were wish fulfillment on my part, and others so obvious you can feel Tate hitting you over the head. The chapters were a bit short for my tastes (I found the breaks distracting), but that does seem to be part and parcel for the genre. As indie efforts go, Max Cutter and The First Black Book isn't just a decent read, it's the start of a promising new series.
Paperback, First Edition, 272 pages
Published April 6th 2014 by NCB Publishing