by Stacia Kane, fantasy (2010)
HarperVoyager, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-00-734325-6
Unholy Magic follows Unholy Ghosts, and since this is a genuine sequel in the sense that the characters in this story already have relationships that were established in the first book, I'd recommend readers new to the Downside Ghosts series to read the books in order. At any rate, read the review of the previous book, at least, for the 101s.
Where we last left off, our heroine Chess Putnam had solved a pretty big case for the Church of Real Truth and saved Downside and maybe even the whole country from ghosts gone wild. Despite getting a pay raise, Chess is still on a downward spiral. She's even more dependent on her drugs to function with any semblance of normalcy, and worse, she's sleeping with Lex, who's with one faction of the neighborhood organized crime syndicate, while cultivating a developing relationship with Terrible, who works for the syndicate that operates in Downside and is the main rival to Lex's syndicate. Juggling a messy social life that makes West Side Story look like an episode of Glee is one thing, but when someone begins murdering prostitutes in Downside and ghosts are suspected to be behind the mess, Chess finds herself in danger. Not only is she in danger from the villains, but she's also in danger of having being caught between two rival organized crime factions explode in her face.
Unholy Magic is structured similarly to Unholy Ghosts - in both books, Chess is called to investigate a Church case as well as a case brought to her by Bump, and somehow both cases are connected. While I personally would like to see a variation of the pattern in future books to avoid having things becoming too predictable, what I like about Unholy Magic is that it is like an improvement on Unholy Ghosts. Despite some similarity in the structure of both stories, this one boasts all the strengths of Unholy Ghosts as well as improves on all of the other book's weaknesses.
For example, I find the previous book problematic because Chess goes through a successive sequence of distress scenes that I feel as if I'm trapped in some kind of Calamity Jane marathon. Here, Ms Kane allows Chess some quiet time between scenes of her being in trouble, and as a result, there is breathing room for me to relax in between the more busy scenes. Also, plot twists and scenes of danger arise more smoothly, as a natural progression of the plot rather than some kind of contrived scenes designed to ensure that Chess will never be out of trouble. Because the story flows more smoothly, this book is a much better read than Unholy Ghosts.
The story moves at a brisk pace, but the author evokes a claustrophobic sense of danger and paranoia so well that it seems like a much longer time has passed in this story. When I say that Chess's dangerous games with Terrible and Lex explode in her face here, boy, it is a great kaboom that will surely impress Marvin the Martian. Chess is not an easy heroine to follow - she is such a screw-up that sometimes I wish I can smack some sense into her. And yet, Chess is being true to character here. An orphan raised in various foster homes, someone who had traded on sex for security at a very early age, it makes sense that Chess grows up to become who she is. She has all the subscription to every issue from lack of self-esteem to mistrust of her own emotions, so much so that she can't help sabotaging her relationship with Terrible even as she and Lex embark in a relationship that is as complicated as it is potentially toxic to Chess. Chess's addiction also comes into play here, and I suspect that we are approaching a point where Chess will have to break her addiction or die from it. If you want a story with a heroine who is morally upright, stay away from Chess. She is such a screw-up, I suspect that some readers will want to run away screaming in the opposite direction after being introduced to Chess.
However, as frustrating as I can find Chess to be at times, I don't have problems enjoying her story here. This is because her character is complicated rather than contrived, and her relationships with Lex and Terrible are... well, let's just say that I can understand why she is doing what she does with them. Lex offers her a chance to let down her hair, relax, and have fun even if he's also offering her free drugs. She knows that he is bad for her, but he also allows her to momentarily feel sane and human. Her relationship with Terrible is more tender - she imagines that they have a friendship. I think her heart's leaning towards Terrible, but Lex offers her an escape and transient bliss that she craves. Either way, I can't entirely root for one over the other, because the whole love triangle is so messy and complicated that I leave all that psychoanalyzing to the professionals.
I also like how Chess is slowly, sometimes frustratingly so, but surely gaining some confidence in herself and opening herself to the possibility that she can form a meaningful relationship with another person. Just like in real life, changes don't come quickly however. But I think Chess is slowly heading in that direction. Her developing relationship with Terrible is healing her in ways that she doesn't fully understand yet.
Of course, we are talking about people of Downside here - she's a junkie and a screw-up while both Lex and Terrible are criminals who kill, sell drugs to people, and do who knows what else. All characters follow their own code of morals, so in a way, they are capable of loyalty and honor - but only to the people they have a bond to. Yes, Chess is still quite pragmatic here in the sense that while she wants to help people, she also isn't above wanting to look after herself first. She also understands the harsh realities of life in Downside, as demonstrated in one scene where she forces herself to look the other way as Terrible does his job on someone who has displeased Terrible's employer. This is an urban fantasy with a stark and bleak vibe of noir, with the characters being true in many ways to what they are: people of the ghetto.
As for the plot, I still feel that the plot is currently a mere backdrop for Chess's character deconstruction to take place. The plot could have been stronger. Chess seems to luck into important clues in this one, and half the time she's too lost in her addiction to focus on the case. One of these days, I tell you, she is going to get nearly killed on the job as a result of her addiction. The plot is the weakest link in this story for me - I actually find the character deconstruction far more interesting than the ghost plot.
Unholy Magic is nowhere an easy read because of the heroine's personality and her issues dominating the story. However, I still enjoy reading this book because it's not just all issues and tissues with nothing else. The relationships between the characters can be complex yet fascinating, and I find myself very interested to see where they will end up from here.
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