After reading this excellent review of Sacrificial Magic, the 4th book in Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series, I knew I had to read this series for myself. I was not disappointed! I know these books each deserve their own more thorough review. However, I read them all back to back this weekend (ahem), so it is a little hard for me to separate them considering I experienced them as a whole. Therefore, I am doing a sort of mini review for the aspects that are unique to each book, followed by a larger one for the themes present in the series thus far. I will try to hide serious spoilers, but be forewarned that I may spoil some of the earlier books when talking about the later ones!
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: May 25, 2010
THE DEPARTED HAVE ARRIVED.
The world is not the way it was. The dead have risen, and the living are under attack. The powerful Church of Real Truth, in charge since the government fell, has sworn to reimburse citizens being harassed by the deceased. Enter Chess Putnam, a fully tattooed witch and freewheeling ghost hunter. She's got a real talent for banishing the wicked dead. But Chess is keeping a dark secret: She owes a lot of money to a murderous drug lord named Bump, who wants immediate payback in the form of a dangerous job that involves black magic, human sacrifice, a nefarious demonic creature, and enough wicked energy to wipe out a city of souls. Toss in lust for a rival gang leader and a dangerous attraction to Bump's ruthless enforcer, and Chess begins to wonder if the rush is really worth it. Hell, yeah.
I think that Unholy Ghosts is one of the best introductory books to an Urban Fantasy series that I have ever read. Kane has respect for her readers, and it shows. She expects from us exactly what she expects from her characters - that we find ourselves in a situation, and figure it out. That we sink or swim on our own. There are no long expositions or info dumping dialogs to make short work of her world's history - rather, it is revealed slowly, in bits and pieces. We get to know the characters in much the same way. I think the thing I like the most, though, is that she allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about things. Just because Chess trusts or mistrusts someone or something doesn't mean that the reader is required to do so as well. I am not sure that I would go so far as to say that it is unreliable narration, but it is something akin to it.
The mystery of this novel was fast paced and intriguing, but somewhat inconsistent. There were times that the clues lead to obvious places, and other times that conclusions were drawn rather quickly, and in ways that didn't completely make sense to me. Also, I felt that Kane opened up a lot of avenues that were never really explored. (Spoiler) I would have liked to have learned a little more about the ghosts of the air force base. When she and Terrible ran into them around town, were they trying to help, or not? Why weren't they ravenous? And, perhaps I am wrong - I did read it pretty quickly, after all - but Chess never actually sent those ghosts to the City, did she? So, they all dive bombed back into the ground and the airport is destroyed - does that mean they no longer have a place to haunt and, therefore, can't come back even if they weren't sent to the city? I don't really understand. (End Spoiler) Despite the small problems, it was still captivating.
"Punks were like birds. The men got to decorate more than the women, as a rule."
Title: Unholy Magic
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: June 1, 2010
ENEMIES DON'T NEED TO BE ALIVE TO BE DEADLY.
For Chess Putnam, finding herself near-fatally poisoned by a con psychic and then stopping a murderous ghost is just another day on the job. As an agent of the Church of Real Truth, Chess must expose those looking to profit from the world's unpleasant little poltergeist problem--humans filing false claims of hauntings--all while staving off any undead who really are looking for a kill. But Chess has been extra busy these days, coping with a new "celebrity" assignment while trying on her own time to help some desperate prostitutes.
Someone's taking out the hookers of Downside in the most gruesome way, and Chess is sure the rumors that it's the work of a ghost are way off base.But proving herself right means walking in the path of a maniac, not to mention standing between the two men in her life just as they--along with their ruthless employers--are moving closer to a catastrophic showdown. Someone is dealing in murder, sex, and the supernatural, and once again Chess finds herself right in the crossfire.
Unholy Magic was probably the best book in the series so far in terms of character development and world building. I learned so much more about the world in which Chess lives. It also had perhaps some of the best portrayals of the characters' flaws and insecurities, and had some truly gut-wrenching things happen to them.
However, for me, this was one of the weakest mysteries. Kane's foreshadowing was always a little too close to the reveals. Also, there were just a few too many (un)happy coincidences. I understand that it makes it a little more interesting if all the little mysteries Chess is working on are actually small pieces to one bigger mystery, but a lot of the tie-ins felt too convenient and contrived.
"...whore's real catchy about her purse. Don't like nobody touch it up, don't let nobody look in. Keep she magic in too, if she use it. Like superstition, dig? Bad luck touchin another whore's purse, lettin any else touch yours." He shrugged. "Them bodies ain't just theirs, dig? So they keep the purse private. Ain't for nobody but them."
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: July 1st 2010
IT'S A THIN LINE BETWEEN ALIVE AND UNDEAD.
Chess Putnam has a lot on her plate. Mangled human corpses have started to show up on the streets of Downside, and Chess's bosses at the Church of Real Truth have ordered her to team up with the ultra-powerful Black Squad agency to crack the grisly case.
Chess is under a binding spell that threatens death if she talks about the investigation, but the city's most notorious crime boss--and Chess's drug dealer--gets wind of her new assignment and insists on being kept informed. If that isn't bad enough, a sinister street vendor appears to have information Chess needs. Only he's not telling what he knows, or what it all has to do with the vast underground City of Eternity.
Now Chess will have to navigate killer wraiths, First Elders, and a lot of seriously nasty magic--all while coping with some not-so-small issues of her own. And the only man Chess can trust to help her through it all has every reason to want her dead.
City of Ghosts is odd to evaluate on its own for me. It moved things forward in a lot of game-changing ways for the characters, and revealed a new level to Chess's power. Also, the mystery was much tighter this go round. Kane used foreshadowing to excellent effect. I guess some things, and ended up kicking myself for NOT having guessed others. The bad guys in this were some of the creepiest that Kane has created thus far, and their evil plot revealed flaws in the Church's control that I wish I had thought of before. There was so much to really like about this book. Despite all this, though, City of Ghosts lacked something in intensity that the other books had. I found myself skimming pages at times to get to the 'important' parts. There was more redundancy - sometimes to the point that I felt I had read a sentence before. Also, for the first time I found myself unforgiving of Chess' inability to share what was going on with other people. I understand the way the binding worked, and that Laura was being impossible, but WHY, OH, WHY wouldn't she talk to to Elder Griffin more? It would have prevented a lot of the mess.
"She'd be lying if she said she wasn't aware of his insecurities, the few he had. She knew he was embarrassed by his lack of education, the he was continually and vocally impressed by hers. Knew he thought he wasn't very smart, despite all evidence to the contrary. That he didn't see himself as being good for much more than muscle.
But somehow she'd never thought those insecurities were serious, that they applied to her or that he would think...shit."
Kane has created some phenomenal characters in this series. Chess is an amazing, strong, intelligent and uncomfortable heroine. I love that Kane doesn't try to protect her heroine from having been a real victim - that she doesn't perpetuate the idea that there is some delineation or demarcation between the two. That being one precluded the possibility of being the other. Her past shapes her but does not completely define her. Chess has some serious self-loathing going on - but she is aware of it. And she has a serious drug addiction, but it is never glamorized. Rather, it is shown exactly as it is: ugly, exhausting, consuming, alienating, nasty, controlling, hard. Kane makes no apologies or excuses for Chess either. She makes it clear that this is just another unhealthy choice that Chess is making - like casual sex with strangers and 'friends' simply so that she will feel (or not feel) something.
Terrible, likewise, is never shown as any more or less that what he is. He is an enforcer for a drug-pushing pimp - and that is never hidden or glossed over. He has beaten and killed people simply because they owed Bump money. At the same time, he has (a very few) people that he truly loves, and he will do anything to protect them. He is smart, funny, and quick to put things together. I love that he is ugly. That Chess has to come to know him, like him, and trust him. As often happens in real life, once we care about someone they are transformed. The internal beauty is all we can see. It makes the love that Chess and Terrible share feel more real - it wasn't an insta-lust turned obsession - but a growing partnership.
The world that she has created completely captures my interest. It is not often that a book so rife with supernatural elements focuses so profoundly on Truth and Fact - on strict skepticism. I am constantly anticipating how Kane will next use these ideas that superficially would seem to contradict each other. I like seeing the methodical approach Kane (and consequently Chess and the her other characters) takes toward her supernatural world. It examines ideas such as hope and faith in new and exciting ways. (I also love the slang used by the Downsiders.)
I also love that Kane explores issues, real issues, that would arise in a post apocalyptic or dystopic world that often get looked over or used as cheap window dressing in the genre. Rape, drug abuse, violence, poverty, prostitution, homelessness, starvation. The weak being used and abused by the strong. Sacrifice of integrity in favor of survival. People, even ones we come to care about, are hurt or even die. Because that is the reality of what this situation would be like. The 'good guys' can't always rescue everyone they care about in the real world. Things that are cruel and unfair and sad and frustrating happen, and there is nothing that can be done but to pick up the pieces and move on. And that is what Kane's character's do.
I also really like Kane's use of music. I realize you can't really hear it, but she almost always has a soundtrack playing. At nearly every point possible, Kane tells you what music the club is playing, or what is on the radio, or what song Chess in thinking of. If you are familiar with the music, it really enriches the scenes. It makes it easier to feel the mood Kane is trying to create, or to anticipate how the scene is going to end. I was familiar with so much of the music that I found myself looking up that which I was not because the music felt like a vital part of the story. Kane's ability to use music to such an extent fascinates me.
The Downside Ghosts series is hands down one of my favorite Urban Fantasy reads to date. It is smart and gritty and moving. I want to see where the characters are going next. I want them to overcome. I want them to do more than survive; I want them to thrive. I care about them deeply, despite the fact that they are individuals so wholly different from myself that I at times fail to understand their choices, however much I empathise. I think Kane has created something amazing here, and I can't wait to see where she goes next.
I Downloaded my Copies to my Nook from Barnes & Noble