Magic Bites
by Ilona Andrews, fantasy (2007)
Ace, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01489-7


Read Ilona Andrews' books, I've been told repeatedly. They would change my life, some earnest fans of theirs insisted. No, I told them, convinced that I didn't need to follow another ongoing series. I've been burned by enough romantic urban fantasy series that eventually degenerated into a "Who Wants To Lay The Special Heroine?" lottery as the Sparkling Vampire, Alpha Werewolf, and Dragon Hunk all take their chances at winning the golden ticket for a trip on the heroine's magic vaginal blimp.

But alas, I'm only human. There are only so many short stories I can take before breaking down and heading over to Book Depository to place my order.

Magic Bites is the first in a series starring Kate Daniels. In this alternate Earth, we are at least 200 years in the future. Technology has declined and magic has returned. Therefore, we not only have powerless humans, we also have magic-users like Kate, shapeshifters, and vampires. Vampires are mindless killers, controlled by magic-users well-versed in necromancy. Lycanthropes are infected by a virus that causes them to be what they are, and the Pack are shapeshifters who have mastered control over their bestial nature and reclaimed their humanity... only to live in organized society reflective of the social order of the animals they can shift into. I guess it's cooler when you pretend to have no control over your sexual urges.

There are other creepy crawly creatures lurking in the shadows, but in this book the power players are the People - controllers of casinos and vampires (and you think the people in Las Vegas merely look awful) led by Masters of the Dead; the Pack led by a single Lord that holds the loyalty and obedience of various alphas of shapeshifters; and the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, comprising spell-casting folks that combine magic with muscle power to help humans keep the peace, sometimes for a price.

Kate chose to leave the Order and follow her own path years ago. When the story opens, however, her mentor and father figure who was with the Order was violently killed by monsters. When the Order drafts Kate in to track down the killer(s), Kate decides that she owes it to herself and the poor dead guy to see the matter through. And so, the adventure begins.

I have to admit that my reading of the first few chapters this book isn't exactly an inspiring moment. In fact, I groan because Kate is shaping up to be another generic romantic urban fantasy heroine. She's special, of course, and she's also a mercenary because she's too cool to bow down to authority - or so she claims. With a huge chip on her shoulders, Kate doesn't seem to like anything. She bitches about everything because petulant bitchiness has long replaced leather trench coats as the new chic. Kate has foot-in-mouth syndrome - you can always expect her to meet the biggest bad guy in the universe and then insult that fellow because she is too cool for common sense.

Meanwhile, female secondary characters are pushed to the background so that they do not eclipse the heroine's supposed awesome presence while the male characters are pushed in the forefront, all of them antagonistic but secretly admiring her nonetheless because ten thousand kinds of awesome radiate from her sparkling special vagina. The bad guy is, of course, the one who wants to claim the awesome vagina for himself instead of standing in line with the rest of the admirers and preening for Kate's attention. Oh, we can't forget a psychotic female villain who is just bitter because she can't be loved by a Master of the Dead like all awesome heroines deserve to be loved by an inhuman boyfriend.

As you can imagine, I get worried during the first quarter or so of this story. I am getting flashbacks to my reading of Laurell K Hamilton's early Anita Blake books and how I had wasted years time and money on that series only to have Anita Blake turn into a pin cushion for monster penises. Turning the pages of Magic Bites, I find myself muttering, "Surely there has to be something more original here than all these familiar tropes?" It doesn't help that the every guy Kate meets, apart from Nataraja the vampire boss, is described as very tall. What is this, an NBA Halloween party?

However, the author eventually gets me. The world building is very nicely done. It's alive, people, it's alive. The details make the setting come to life in full-blown technicolor. The vampires are more like monsters of yore before they became poster boys for emo kids everywhere, while the author's take of lycanthropy is pretty cool. Too many authors use "lycanthrope" as a short-cut for "characters with rampant erections", so it's nice to see furry folks that aren't obsessed with smelling a woman's underwear to determine whether she's their mate. What I really like here is how the author has seamlessly integrated the introduction of the concepts and traits of the setting into the story without bogging things down with exposition. There is no overload of awkward made-up jargon or corny names with too many apostrophes. The world the story is set in is exciting, scary, and exhilarating to visit. I want to go back there again.

I also love how the author isn't afraid to have Kate realize what a twit she could be in this story. Kate won't be winning any prizes soon when it comes to brainpower, and I'm glad the author is not trying to convince me otherwise. Secondary characters often correctly mock Kate's abrasive attitude. This gives me hope that Kate will experience some character growth as the series progresses, and therefore, no matter how generic Kate comes off as here, I find myself wanting to see what the author will do to this character in future books.

As for the plot, it's not exactly what I'd consider a good one given that this is another plot that sees the bad guy trying to establish dominion over the heroine's special awesome vagina by hoisting his flag and pitching it on Kate's Mons Huygens. The villain also turns out to be a ranting lunatic capable of great acts of savagery. I find it very hard to believe that a villain capable of avoiding detection from some of the most powerful spooks in Atlanta turns out to be the same person who can suddenly pull out an army of large monsters out of the blue (maybe he has a big warehouse somewhere to keep these monsters out of sight) while raving and screaming like a demented nutcase.

But even if the denouement of the story is completely ridiculous, I find myself very engaged by the story despite everything. The author has done many things right here. The pacing is excellent, the build-up is nerve-wrecking and thrilling, and I find myself unexpectedly feeling this lump in my throat when several secondary characters bite the big one. Don't laugh, but I think poor Arag deserves better here. Like a certain creature obsessed with a ring, he can't help being himself! The author should have allowed Kate to put those poor misunderstood flesh-eating monsters into some SPCA for Spooks or something. Can someone be a dear and resurrect poor Arag so that he can make an appearance in the next book? I'm declaring myself the President of the Arag Appreciation Amnesty Association. Bring back Arag and give him a loving home!

Anyway, Magic Bites is a very entertaining read. Could it have been more original when it comes to the heroine and some of the male characters in this story? Of course. But what sells me here is the setting, the writing, and the self-awareness displayed by the author on the heroine's faults as well as her strengths. I'd definitely be reading more of this series.

Rating: 85


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