(2010) Stacia Kane, Harper Voyager, £7.99, pbk, 409pp, ISBN 978-0-007-35284-5
This is the third book in the Downside Ghosts series of 'urban fantasies'. It started with Unholy Ghosts, continued with Unholy Magic, and the author’s website promises a couple more to come.
First, a bit of background to the series. In 1996 the Earth changed; in what became known as 'Haunted Week' ghosts became real. This was bad news for everyone as the ghosts were almost mindless, completely malicious, and interested in nothing other than killing the living. They brought about the death of many millions and the resulting chaos brought down governments. However, magic and witchcraft really worked now and fortunately the Church of Real Truth rose and came to the rescue, restrained and consigned the ghosts to the City of Eternity and, for evil people, the spirit prisons, and became the de facto government.
Somehow, despite the losses and the drastic changes brought about by the impact of dealing with the dead and dying, society kept going: there were still cars on the road, mobile phones still worked, the fire department still put out fires, and so on. I tell you this because the book does not – I got it from the author’s website. I suspect that a lot of this was explained in the first book but if, like me, you are picking up the series at this point, it would have been nice to have been told. Admittedly by the end of the first chapter you have figured out enough of this for yourself, and odds bits are mentioned as the story progresses, but with over 400 pages you would have though that there would have been space for a brief foreword, just a couple of paragraphs to set the scene.
Now for Cesaria Putnam, the central character: Chess, as she is generally known, is a Debunker for the Church. Her job is to investigate claims that bad things have happened because of ghostly or magical action and either expose false claims or else fix the problem. Like most members of the church, she is a witch (which can be both male and female in this context) and a pretty good one at that. She lives in Triumph City (which is never described but seems to be a large city somewhere in the US) and, whilst most of the Church live in the better parts of town, she lives in Downside. Here the emphasis is on the Down! This is a lawless ghetto, full of crime and drug dealers, the sort of place where the concepts of 'law abiding citizen' and personal survival are mutually exclusive. Quite why the Church let her live there is a bit of a mystery, even to Chess, but it has one great advantage: privacy! For Chess is not exactly clean-living: she’s a junkie and can only face the world when dosed up with the appropriate drugs and often wishes for nothing more than a trip to a pipe room and the hours of oblivion it will bring. Given her complete dependence on her always-carried handbag full of pharmaceuticals, it is quite amazing that the Church has not noticed, especially as such things are not just frowned upon, they are Absolutely Verboten. Indeed, not only does Chess wonder how she gets away with it, so do I!
And so to the story, which opens at the execution of the evil Madame Lupita. The executioner’s axe falls and his psychopomp, created for the occasion, catches the released spirit and whisks it away to the spirit prisons. But horror, she has been hosting a second spirit. There is no psychopomp for this one and the ghost rapidly despatches both the executioner and Elder Murray, the officiator, before the witnesses can constrain it and, of course, the extra ghosts of the just-killed. Obviously something has gone very wrong and Chess soon finds herself being asked by Elder Griffin if she will take on a very special case. The bonus payment is exceptional and irresistible, but it does entail taking a Binding Oath of silence and, in a world where magic works, the Binding Oath will be lethal and immediate if she tells anyone else anything. Worse, she gets teamed up with Lauren who is not only a member of the Church’s elite Black Squad but she is also the daughter of the Grand Elder. Whereas Chess takes a broad view and follows her instincts, Lauren is a stickler for the rulebook and Chess regards her as a right pain in the backside (and I am being polite there).
Chess is briefed that the Lamaru are back, a really nasty bunch of witches determined to destroy the Church, and she and Lauren have been given the task of finding them and what they are up to. Following the trail of bodies, they are soon in Downside and in a fight with a coven of the Lamaru. She has hardly gotten home from that when Chess finds herself summoned by Bump, who runs pretty much everything in that corner of town (as well as being her main supplier), and he is determined to know exactly what is going on. He understands the power of the Oath but he is not going to let her off the hook: she has moonlighted for him before and she is damn well going to do it again. This also means dealing with Terrible, Bump's huge, muscle-bound enforcer, and with whom Chess had been 'romantically' involved. She also finds herself having to deal with Lex, another supplier and sort of ex-boyfriend. It is all a mess! And then there’s the mysterious Arthur Maguinness peddling his Potent Potions.
Chess has more battles with the Lamaru, sometimes in the company of Terrible and sometimes with Lauren, as she gets closer to the truth. She teams up with Lex to search the tunnels under Downside, tunnels which he regards as his domain for his own illegal activities but which are now becoming the lair of both the Lamaru and Arthur Maguinness. Whatever’s going on, it is very, very black. The battles with the Lamaru and with Maguinness’ magic escalate until we reach the occasion of Elder Murray’s Dedication in the City of Eternity. At this point treachery becomes the order of the day and there are many surprises all round as a three-way battle erupts in the City: a battle that can only result in a terrible fate for the world if the Church fails to win.
This book has a lot going for it and is an enjoyable read in many ways but it also has its weaknesses. Personally, I like a good story and I expect both it and the characters to make sense; I enjoy good characterisation though it’s not essential if the story is strong. And the story is good … but I have something of a problem with the characters. Firstly, there is nothing much to like about Chess and, secondly, as the story is entirely centred on her and told only from her perspective this leaves the rest of the characters rather flat and the feeling that there is a lot of story left untold.
From the start Chess uses the f-word a lot and this soon becomes tedious, just as it does with real people who are short of other descriptive words. Fortunately, this diminishes after a while. It might be gritty realism, but I really do not enjoy that much gritty realism in my fantasy. And perhaps that is part of my problem with this book, it is described as 'urban fantasy' and it suffers from too much 'urban' at the expense of enjoying the 'fantasy'.
As I got into the book, I found that it soon broke down into three themes which it kept flitting between. First, of course, the main story concerning the Lamaru. Second, Chess’ continuous concern with her drugs - what had she last taken, had it cut-in yet, when would it wear off, what would she take next, would Lauren just go into the other room for a moment so she could grab and knock back another couple of pills, etc., etc., etc.. And third, her continuous lamenting over her failed relationship with Terrible and the problems of having been with Lex. It felt to me (incorrectly, I admit) that these three themes each amounted to a third of the book. This resulted in the pace being very uneven, and by half way through the book it had ceased to be tedious, it had become downright boring and I was on the point of giving up on the story entirely. Fortunately, the pace picked up again and stayed a little higher; I stuck with the book, and I am glad that I did in fact read it through to the end.
There were a couple of other points that detracted from the (relative to the story) 'realism'. Following a long and really nasty battle in the Slaughterhouse, Chess and Lauren escape, just, with their lives. They have almost been burnt to death in the conflagration, they can hardly breath from all the smoke inhalation, and Chess (at least) has some nasty wounds. So why did they just clean up with some baby wipes and go home? Surely, and especially as a Church squad had turned up along with the firemen, they would have received some meaningful medical treatment on the spot or, more likely, been sent to a hospital.
Also, following on from the revelations of treachery at the end, one (well, I do) looks back at the story from the perspective of now knowing what certain people were really doing rather than the false impression they were trying to create. From that new perspective, given what must have been the ultimate aims and detailed planning of the Lamaru, I am left wondering 'er, what?' about certain scenes and quite a lot of the action. And that is always a problem when there’s treachery or the like, the story and the characters’ actions must be consistent with both the original view and the updated view: this can be difficult for an author to achieve but without this consistency the story loses integrity.
Throughout, I was left wondering just how Chess gets away with her significant drug habit, particularly given that the Church witches seem to be so sensitive to people and their various (not just magical and spiritual) conditions. She appears to be under the auspices and guidance of Elder Griffin, who keeps a kindly eye on her. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is a cut above the average Elder, more knowledgeable and wiser, that he knows the truth about Chess and sees something special in her despite her very obvious faults, and he realises that her value to the Church should not be underestimated. If I am right, then it makes a lot more sense, but am I just inventing this to fill in the holes?Whilst the story is a good one and Chess’ weaknesses are essential to who she is, not to mention relevant to how she performs in the story, I feel that far too much time was spent on them. Yes, they are a vital part of who she is and cannot be ignored, but they take up far too many pages and cause the pace to be quite bumpy. As the book totals over 400 pages, I am left wondering (somewhat cynically) if a lot of her angst is there just to increase the page count, to make the book appear thicker and better value for money on the shop shelves. I remember the Good Old Days when a decent novel could be well told in just 180-190 pages and was the better for it.
Of course, I may have missed the point. I am looking at the adventure part of the story, the 'why it is being told'. If the real story is about Chess’ considerable angst then the stuff about the Lamaru is merely backdrop, in which case it could have been reduced and we could have spent more time sharing her soul-searching, and the book re-categorised as 'urban misery'.
If this seems overly negative then let me repeat that City of Ghosts does have a lot going for it and, if you are OK with, or even like sharing Chess' problems, it is an enjoyable read. Apart from the bumpiness of the pace, it is a good story. But with less emphasis on the angst it could have been a better one.
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