(Today, I review things from the past; this is because I do not always get the new books, and sometimes have to read things I find in the bookstore.)
Urban Fantasy is a hard genre to be impressive with, especially without resorting to the Creeping Body Count. This is what makes Stacia Kane’s startlingly unique and darkly fascinating Unholy Ghosts — the first in her Downside Ghosts series — such a refreshing surprise.
The premise of the series is this: some time, roughly twenty or so years ago, all the dead came back to earth as ghosts for a week, and tried to kill all the living. Of the many churches, cults, and magicians in our world, only one of them turned out to have the actual, real right answers – the ability to put the ghosts back where they belonged.
Fast forward to today, and the Church of Truth is the only church there is, because they’re the only ones that can actually do what they say they’ll do. They promise to protect the people from hungry ghosts, and to that effect offer enormous reparations if a family can show that they’ve been the victim of a legitimate haunting. The Church then sends out Debunkers to investigate these claims, offering commissions if a case is successfully debunked.
Thus, the heroine of the story: Chess (Cesaria) Putnam, a witch and Church of Truth debunker, abused and misused since she was orphaned during the Haunted Week, subtly damaged and heavily reliant on pills and speed, but still clever, competent, and daring. Chess is in hock to her dealer, Bump, and Bump is using her debt to leverage her into investigating an unusual haunting of unprecedented strength—while a rival dealer tries to convince Chess to switch sides and sell the former dealer out.
The actual nitty-gritty of the plot is a fairly straightforward “Do not call up that which ye cannot put down” plot for an urban fantasy; not predictable, certainly, but not unfamiliar once the reveals come. I don’t want to make this sound like a criticism; the fact is, when it comes to urban fantasy, there just aren’t that many plot choices available. Especially when a series is starting out, and characters and setting and premises all need introductions and explanations, there just isn’t enough room to have a plot that rests reliably on some subtle particularities of the setting. All of which is to say, if you’re going to set a story in a strange world with strange characters, something had probably better be familiar.
It’s the strangeness where Kane really shines as an author; Chess lives in a world still fraught with her romantic entanglements, and the vagueness of the “pretty boy” seems to suggest what Kane is really interested in: the dark, dirty, richly ugly and beautifully-detailed Downside.
I’ve had some words to say about Urban Fantasy Detective stories, and in that context it’s not surprising that I feel refreshed by an urban fantasy with a genuine sense of place. The vivid energy of the setting, the magnetic ugliness of it, is intensely compelling. And it’s not just the grotesqueries —Chess’s companion, the muscle to accompany her magic, is a huge, tattooed-and-branded, Neanderthal-faced man who wears bowling shirts and Elvis Presley hair (a man very appropriately named “Terrible”) — but the minor bits. Chess is the first supernatural investigator I’ve ever read who carries a notebook, and sometimes writes things down.
Of all the abundant details that flesh out a genuine-feeling, lived in world, I think my favorite has to be the Downside argot. I don’t know what city this series is set in; if it’s a real city, and I just don’t recognize any of the landmarks, or if it’s a sort of hypothetical city, that couldn’t have existed except in the context of the Church and its vampire ghosts—but the denizens of the poor and grubby district speak with what sounds like a kind Welsh (? something, I don’t know)-inflected grammar. The language is both hypnotically musical (I found myself resisting the urge to use it in public after reading the book) and puts a fine point both on the difference between Chess’s world and ours, and on the vivid class distinction between the educated Church and the impoverished people that it protects.
(UPDATE: it’s called Triumph City, but this proves nothing; maybe it’s a fictional city, but maybe they rename a regular city after the ghosts all came up.)
It’s a small detail and inessential to the plot, but absolutely vital for making the book live, and the series stand out from a genre that grows more crowded and more generic every day.
Unholy Ghosts is the first of Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series; I’m very much looking forward to the rest.