Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
August 2013

PRESCRIPTION: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson
SYMPTOMS: Hhistorical urban fantasy, revolutionary war, tricornpunk, cool magic system, historical characters, mystery
DOSAGE: (out of five)

This series had me at "Revolutionary-War era urban fantasy." When I heard the premise of Thieftaker, the first in D.B. Jackson's new series, I knew I had to read it. Ethan Kaille, whose profession gives the first book its title, works freelance hunting down thieves to retrieve stolen items, and sometimes to bring them to justice at the hands of Boston's largely ineffective local government. His status as an ex-convict, released after serving years of labor in the West Indies for the crime of mutiny, is well known, but the fact that he is a conjuror is not. Or so he thought. When a powerful merchant hires him to investigate the murder of his daughter, Ethan staggers into a magic-laced plot involving an anonymous conjuror of terrifying power that might very well get him killed.

The fact that there's a sequel pretty much spoils the question of whether Ethan dies, but knowing he makes it will not diminish enjoyment of the first book, especially for those who like to see the heroes get beaten up. Often. After finishing Thieftaker, it was hard to imagine how Jackson could raise the stakes in Thieves' Quarry, but he did, and he did it by bringing in Mother England.

Ethan is a grave hero with a well-developed past. One of the most interesting things about him is that he is loyal to England. I'm used to reading stories of patriot protagonists fighting for freedom from George III, but Ethan is no such hero. Neither is he an unquestioning loyalist, though, so with tension heating up and the revolutionary war brewing, I look forward to seeing if his loyalties shift in future books. My favorite character was Mr. Pell, a priest who disagrees with the church's hatred toward conjuring. The best thing about the characters in the series is that they are not caricatures of their beliefs.

Two aspects that stand out most about the series, however, are the historical and speculative elements. The details about clothing, food and politics, the professions of minor characters, and the way the characters talk all add to the milieu in a way that is not distracting. That's part of the joy of reading historical fiction by an author with a PhD in history. There's no awkward "hey, look what I learned about bullseye glass" moment that draws the reader out of the text, but a familiarity that makes the world Ethan lives in both richer and more grounded. That confidence of setting helped make the weaving of speculative elements into the culture and history seamless and natural.

I'm a sucker for cool magic systems, and what I noticed right away about Ethan's magic is the use of "spirit guides" - ghost-like beings that appear whenever a conjuror uses magic. Ethan's guide, a grumpy old man nicknamed Uncle Reg, is the force that gives action to his casting. The second element is the necessity to verbalise spells - in Ethan's case, in Latin, though an African side-character gives me the impression that it's not limited to that language. The third element, which any Dungeons and Dragons player who's ever had a Wizard in her party will be familiar with, is components. First you have to find a component to use, and then you hope you know the Latin word for it. This is probably why Ethan gets the crap kicked out of him so often. If I had to remember how to conjugate the Latin word for grass into the accusative case (or is it ablative?), I probably wouldn't make it off my front porch.

Call it historical urban fantasy or call it tricornpunk, if you like history, mystery, and gritty urban fantasy, you will not call Ethan's newest story a disappointment.

PRESCRIPTION: Spirit & Dust by Rosemary Clement-Moore
SYMPTOMS: quirky contemporary YA fantasy, snarky first-person narration, ghosts, Egyptian mythology, mystery
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Spirit & Dust was the first book I'd ever read by Rosemary Clement-Moore, but it won't be the last. Simply put, this book was entertaining as hell. If Indiana Jones hooked up with the Ghost Whisperer and had a geeky teenage daughter, this would be her story. The heroine, Daisy Goodnight, is a 5'10" redheaded gazelle of a psychic from a long line of supernaturally-talented women. Her particular ability to communicate with ghosts lands her an unofficial gig with the FBI, who is investigating the kidnapping of a young woman, starting with her murdered bodyguard. When Daisy herself is kidnapped from the police station, things get even weirder.

First off, she was kidnapped by the kidnapped girl's father, a powerful crime lord who uses magic and blackmail to get what he wants. Then, he forces her into a magical geas tasking her to look for his daughter, only this time without the FBI's interference. Understandably, Daisy is suspicious, and the fact that her personal jailer/bodyguard, Carson, looks like a model for the mafia issue of Men's Health doesn't dispel that suspicion, though it is distracting. What follows is a fast-paced story full of magical explosions, Egyptian mythology, ghosts of varying degrees of helpfulness, and good, old-fashioned lies and betrayal.

The three things I liked most about this book were Daisy's voice, the worldbuilding surrounding the supernatural elements, and the use of the Chicago Field Museum as the stage for the final battle. Because Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the actual Chicago Field Museum, is awesome. Though the plot itself occasionally had me wondering when and how all the elements were going to come together, the ending tied things up nicely and left enough open for potential sequels.

Daisy, with her bleeding heart, geeky references, and affinity for Coca Cola is a refreshing change from the tortured teenager of many YA paranormals, and it was nice to step into a novel where the heroine is already comfortable with her power and its limitations. The challenges to those limitations - both supernatural and moral - did a great job showing what Daisy is made of and had me squinting at my phone reader way past my bedtime.

Spirit & Dust takes place in the same world as Texas Gothic, Clement-Moore's first book in the world, which I have not read. The depth of worldbuilding was clear, but Clement-Moore handled exposition deftly and kept it relevant to Daisy's knowledge and the scope of Spirit & Dust, so reading Texas Gothic is not necessary to understand the story. I appreciated the explanations of energy exchange with respect to magic, and how that came to relate to ghosts and Daisy's mission to find the kidnapped girl.

The one disappointment for me was the romantic aspect of the story. I like a little romance in my fiction (and will create it myself if I have to), but I just couldn't get on board the Carson train. My personal crush was definitely on Agent Taylor, Daisy's FBI handler of the sarcastic-and-competent-man-in-uniform variety, on whom Daisy also has an inappropriate crush. Dearest reader, I ship it.

Despite my lukewarm feelings toward Carson, the story's ending was satisfying and left me wanting to know what happened with all the characters next. The ghost elements are not creepy, so horror fans beware of that expectation, but readers who enjoy snarky humor, geeky references, quirky heroines, and Egyptian mythology will get a steel-tipped kick out of this book.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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