Thursday, 3 February 2011

book review: Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts: Book One of the Downside Ghosts series

Stacia Kane: if you type this writer’s name into Google one of the top searches it suggests is ‘Stacia Kane terrible’, which is terribly misleading (sorry). Terrible is the name of one of her characters and not a result that has come from readers wanting to know if others share the same opinion of her writing. You can mainly be assured of this because Kane’s writing is rather brilliant. But Brilliant isn’t a character name that’s going to pop up in fictional town Downside any time soon, unless it’s a new drug and lead character Chess happens to snort it.

Cesaria ‘Chess’ Putnam is a witch who works for the new (and only) religion, the all-powerful Church of Real Truth. Ever since Haunted Week, when the dead inexplicably stalked the earth and killed much of the population, the Church has been in charge. People now knew the ‘truth’; that there is no god, only magic. The Church and its witches keep the dead under control and promise to reimburse anyone who falls victim to a ghost. Chess is a Debunker for the Church – a tattooed witch who refutes false claims of a haunting, with the ability to use a ‘psychopomp’ spirit to guide (read: drag) the errant ghost back to where it belongs. Its final destination isn’t heaven, but the City, a place deep underground, accessible via Church HQ.

Ghosthunter Chess hasn’t had an easy life – sent from one abusive foster home to another and unable to recall her birth parents or her real name, she dims her hurts with a heavy drug habit. Luckily for Chess in her hometown of Downside, slums created after the fallout from Haunted Week, drugs are accessible 24/7. Not so luckily, her murderous dealer Bump forces her to investigate a haunting at an airport hanger he wishes to use so she can pay off her drug debt. Chess straddles working for Bump on the sly, a rival dealer’s offer and her latest case for the Church, along with a new-found lust for Bump’s muscle, Terrible. Then human sacrifice, a demonic dream-stalker and some seriously black magic is cut into the already heady mix.

Published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Del Ray in the USA, Unholy Ghosts is the first title in the Downside Ghosts series by Kane, followed by Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts, both available now and with a 4th and 5th to follow.

This comes under the Urban Fantasy tag – a genre that suffers from containing books of the same ilk (albeit some of these shine brighter than others). Stacia Kane’s website describes her series as ‘a cross between Ghostbusters and Escape from New York’. Frankly, anything that can be described as such gets my adoration (who can resist Kurt Russell’s Snake?) - I must be right in the target market.

Which isn’t as narrow as it sounds. Downside ghosts has several unique points going for it. It combines ghosthunting and witchcraft. The lead has a serious drug problem. The love interest is an ugly, scarred, tattooed thug.

What really makes Unholy Ghosts stand out is that despite being atypical in certain aspects, it never fails to entertain or grip you. Chess might be snorting, popping and inhaling all the drugs she can get, but you never stop sympathising with her. Unlikely love interest Terrible might be muscle-for-hire with a partiality for tattoos and an inability to grasp basic sentence structure, but he’s also a tender, bruised character you might just find yourself loving.

There are aspects of this novel that unavoidably smack of first-in-a-series. There’s a whole new world to get used to and so the plot isn’t overly adventurous as the novel has a lot to introduce. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying. The plot is well thought out, divulges some information without giving too much away and leaves you wanting to know more, it's well paced with twists and turns and you genuinely care about what happens to the leads.

With society crumbling, education isn’t what it was and as such Downside has its own jargon. At first, the use of language distracting, but you soon settle in and become accustomed to the local lingo. It adds genuine flavour to the slums and the characters are layered and distinctive, their lumps and bumps rising off the page.

As a heroine, Chess is the strong, sexy, witty female lead we’ve come to expect from Urban Fantasy. But she’s also fragile and vulnerable, without being weak. Kane’s writing prowess allows her to go from drug to drug without alienating the audience – which is no easy feat.

But for me, what makes this novel so enjoyable above all else is the writing style. Kane can certainly turn a phrase. The plot and characters stand on their own, but add to that the talent to eek beauty from a sentence (‘her hair whipped around her face and stole the view’), and surprising, wonderful observations (two words: ‘Abominable Snowpimp’, had me in tears), and something good becomes great.

Kane’s Unholy Ghosts is a witty, at times moving, unique Urban Fantasy by an uncommonly good writer. Roll on Unholy Magic.


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