Del Rey, 2010, approx. 98,000 words
THE DEPARTED HAVE ARRIVED.
The world is not the way it was. The dead have risen, and the living are under attack. The powerful Church of Real Truth, in charge since the government fell, has sworn to reimburse citizens being harassed by the deceased. Enter Chess Putnam, a fully tattooed witch and freewheeling ghost hunter. She’s got a real talent for banishing the wicked dead. But Chess is keeping a dark secret: She owes a lot of money to a murderous drug lord named Bump, who wants immediate payback in the form of a dangerous job that involves black magic, human sacrifice, a nefarious demonic creature, and enough wicked energy to wipe out a city of souls. Toss in lust for a rival gang leader and a dangerous attraction to Bump’s ruthless enforcer, and Chess begins to wonder if the rush is really worth it. Hell, yeah.
I am not a big reader of Urban Fantasy series. Especially the ones with tramp-stamped Photoshop anatomy on the covers. Just can't take that shit seriously.
I picked up Unholy Ghosts because it was on sale for $0.99. Very clever, how more publishers are getting on board with offering the first book in a series practically for free, hoping to hook readers on the rest. In my case, I'm not going to run out and read the rest of the Downside Ghosts series right away, but I will probably pick them up eventually — this was good reading and actually left me kind of curious where the main character's life would go from here, as opposed to Kitty Norville, who just annoyed the hell out of me and left me uninterested in reading more.
The premise: maybe twenty years ago (dates are not specified, but the story seems to take place approximately in the present day, in an alternate universe), vengeful ghosts ran amok and killed off two-thirds of the human population. A group of practicing magicians (using magic that seems to be based on the sort of hermetic traditions that real-world neo-pagans borrowed in making up their rituals) were the only ones able to save the world, using their magic to banish them back to the Eternal City. Today, the Church of Truth is the only religion left; with proof that all other religions were completely wrong about everything, the populace turned against them. Now the Church is responsible for protecting humanity.
So, if you can get past the several major suspensions of disbelief in the above premise, you can settle into this stylish world full of cars and band references and supernatural weirdness that reads kind of like A Clockwork Orange crossed with Ghostbusters crossed with Anita Blake.
Chess Putnam (her real name is Cesaria) is a witch working for the Church of Truth as a Debunker. Her job is to banish ghosts who occasionally get loose from the Eternal City. The Church, as part of its pact to protect humanity, gives monetary compensation to anyone who suffers from a genuine haunting. Of course, this leads to many people trying to stage fake hauntings; hence, Debunkers.
Chess is a hot mess. She grew up an orphan, abused in various ways as a child, and now she's a drug addict. The cornucopia of recreational pharmaceuticals she imbibes over the course of the book is pretty impressive; one wonders how she functions and keeps her job popping that many pills, but she does. This was one of the more interesting aspects of the character: there is no anti-drug message per se, even though it's pretty clear that all this pill-popping has left her seriously fucked up. Chess pops her pills, gets into more trouble, sometimes tries to do the right and proper thing despite being tripping on the moon from all the pills she's popped, and then crashes, burns, and goes looking for more pills along with clues to her case. She never shows any interest in getting clean, nor any particular guilt about being a drug addict. I wonder if the author plans to have Chess try to get clean later in the series, and how that will change the character. Or is she going to remain kind of like House, a dysfunctional mess who manages to keep doing her job.
Despite being a junkie, Chess is a basically decent person, which keeps her from being completely unlikeable. The situation that throws her into the plot in this book is her dealer jacking her debt up with bogus "interest" charges, but telling her she can wipe it all clean if she'll just take care of a little problem for him, involving some ghosts....
The plot involves ghosts at an abandoned airport, rival dealers with Chess caught in the middle, an implied love triangle with Chess and the hit men working for said rival dealers, Church corruption, and a conspiracy of evil non-Church witches who threaten to let all the ghosts free again.
I liked the female protagonist. Most UF heroines are either bad-ass Exceptional Women or some other "Not like those other bitches" trope, or cringing doormats like Kitty Norville, or maybe some messy combination of the two. Chess has a very active sex life in which she frequently makes bad choices, but they're her own choices. She's very good at what she does, when she's not high (and sometimes even when she is high), but she's as afraid as any normal person of armed drug dealers. She has no clue how to straighten out her life, and she's basically a working girl trying to get by.
I wouldn't say the range and diversity of other characters was particularly impressive — they're all pretty standard UF archetypes, and there were no other significant female characters — but the setting and the plot were sufficiently entertaining to keep me engaged, and since the main character didn't annoy me overly much, that's about all I can ask for from this genre.
Like I said, there are some big pills to swallow (heh) in terms of suspension of disbelief. So the dead came back to slaughter the living, and this "disproved" all religions and practically overnight, all the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and other faiths were abandoned? I don't think so. Religions are remarkably good at adapting to and overcoming cognitive dissonance: "Well, all that stuff we used to believe, that was never actually what our religion said!" They'd thrive in the post-Haunted Week world, they'd just co-opt the witches who have ghost-busting skills.
Chess is practically a walking pharmacy. At one point, she pops a pill she finds on a corpse just because she recognizes it as a rare drug her dealer can't get for her. It will be interesting to see how far the author pushes her in future books.
And not so in love with Terrible, the big bruiser hit by the Ugly Stick who of course, turns out to be a big soft teddy bear inside even though his job is beating up and killing people for a drug trafficker.
There is also a lot of "Downside" slang made up for the people who live in the bad parts of the city (but not by Chess or any of the educated Church people):
“Aw, sure, ladybird. You go anywhere you want. You head on over to Slobag on Thirtieth, see how them tattoos get ’preciated by the fuckin scum down there. But you still owe me.”
Again she glanced at the bag. Bump smiled. “You want one? Go ’head. You have one. Whatever you like.” He picked up the bag and held it out to her so it gapped open. “Go ’head.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “What are you going to charge me for that?”
His laugh seemed to come from his feet and roll up his body. “I don’t gotta charge you none for it, baby. You owes me enough already, ain’t you?”
He folded his knife and tucked it into his pocket. “Course…now I’m thinking…could be I know a way you pay. A way you work off your owes.”
Depending on your tolerance for made-up slang, this adds a bit of flavor to the dialog, or is just annoying. The writing in general is passably good, not brilliant and at no point did I think Stacia Kane is a fantastic writer, but neither did I stumble over anything and wonder how it got past an editor. So, if the premise or the genre appeals to you at all, it is worth checking out. I liked it enough that I might actually read more books in the series.
Have you read Unholy Ghosts?
Have you read any other books in the Downside Ghosts series?
Do you read Urban Fantasy?
Verdict: An entertaining, fast-paced supernatural thriller for people who like Urban Fantasy, and different enough to appeal to someone (like me) who doesn't so much. The heroine distinguishes herself by being a believable person with enough virtues and flaws to balance likable with annoying. Unholy Ghosts is not wholly original and the tropes all proceed directly from its many predecessors, but it's a quick, fun read.
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