Reviewed: September 13, 2010
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Downside Ghosts, Book 2
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Print, eBook
Chess Putnam doesn't lead a perfect life - not by a long shot. A pill-popping, line-snorting junkie whose vices put her career as Debunker for the Church of Real Truth - the only thing in her life she's proud of - in jeopardy, Chess' self loathing keeps her locked in patterns of consistently and irrevocably self destructive behavior. She lies to everyone she knows, even the one man she considers a friend. She keeps secrets, even from herself. She is utterly incapable of dealing with emotions in anything resembling a healthy way. She's a tragic, flawed, broken character. A perpetual victim of a past she never forgets and easy to manipulate because of it, despite her power as a witch.
In Unholy Magic, The Church has given her a high profile case that will keep her in pills and smoke for a good long while, Debunking a house of a well known actor. Chess doesn't have time to appreciate her good fortune, though. Prostitutes are turning up dead in Bump's territory and he commands Chess find out who. Rival drug lord Slobag is also losing girls, and soon Chess is a pawn between the two crime lords. Her history with Bump and her friendship with Terrible on one side, her sexual relationship with Lex, Slobag's man, on the other, and the secrets she's kept from both sides chain her in place.
Stacia Kane penned a gritty, dark, atmospheric urban fantasy series premier with Unholy Ghosts and followed it up with a darker, grittier Unholy Magic. We return to Triumph City and the tragic life of Chess Putnam, one of the most fascinating antiheroes in the genre. In no way is Chess a typical heroine, and her rampant and enthusiastic drug use combined with her vocal self loathing is even more chilling and disturbing than the scope and power of the Church of Real Truth - a frightening (to me) world wide organization that rules humanity in the slightly futuristic alternate universe of the Downside Ghosts series. Despite that, and despite lacking sympathy for Chess' self imposed isolation and moral decay, I've become rabidly fond of this imaginative and well written series.
It's grim, and what isn't tainted by drugs and violence is tinged by subversive zealotry, but it's an exceptionally vibrant corruption with characters that feel disturbingly real. This book was bleaker than the first, and Chess' addictions have gotten their claws deeper into her...if that was possible. You won't find a character intent on redemption or attempting to better herself. No one motivated by any feelings of hope for a better future. Chess has no hopes. She's satisfied with her life and her drugs - no...that's not right...she covets them like a lover, and her entire world, every aspect of every minute of her life revolves around them. That, perhaps, is the most disturbing aspect of her character, especially after this book, which contains a shockingly realistic scene of drug withdrawal that's brutal in its debasement of humanity and individuality. Horrifyingly compelling reading.
For all her many faults, however, Chess does actually have integrity in relation to her job, and she does have a code of ethics, of a sort. She is a complex character with a fascinating dichotomy in her personality. Her dedication to the Church and belief in both her job and her skill as a witch constantly war with an absolute absence of self worth in all other aspects of her life. The rich but dark backdrop of murderous ghosts and insidious sex magic and a century-old mystery surround her and highlight Chess' sins and attempts at righteousness.
Three dimensional and unique secondary and ancillary characters aid her and ground her - a little, anyway. Her relationship with Terrible is, as it was in the first book, my favorite aspect of the book, because I think only through that do you really see Chess' humanity and see through her bravado and vice to the vulnerable woman inside. That's when Chess becomes sympathetic - those glimpses of vulnerability and scant seconds of visible insecurity. They're quickly gone, but powerful when there.
The plot of the story is strong and interesting, well told by Kane with a neat, quick pacing that doesn't allow for many relaxing moments. The villains have a hard time competing with the landscape and society for supreme threat, and no chance at all of being as dangerous as Chess' own sins, but the strength of the series lies in its heroine, and taken together, provides an entertaining, if not completely comfortable, reading experience.
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