review: modern sorcery

Modern Sorcery by Gary Jonas (2011)

Modern Sorcery is the first book in the Jonathan Shade urban fantasy series by Gary Jonas. This book has been on my kindle for at least six months. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but over the weekend I decided I was in the right mood to read this particular book. Well, I should say I was finally in the mood to make a second attempt to read the book. The first time I picked up Modern Sorcery, I read about 9% of the book or what amounts to the first 40 pages. I didn’t know if I would actually make it through the whole book the second time around, but I wanted to, because this is exactly the kind of urban fantasy that is my favorite—private detectives whose investigations take place in a paranormal world, and bonus points if the novel weaves in elements of noir and hardboiled detective fiction. I’m not able to say I loved Modern Sorcery, but I did like it a lot and already plan to read the second book in the series. On a budget? At the time of this writing, it’ll cost you $2.99 plus tax, as the book is not currently available from my local library and it’s also not in the Kindle Unlimited library. If you’re a fan of the urban fantasy genre and looking for a new series, then it’s worth the dollars from your book budget. If you’re a casual fan or new to the genre, I’d recommend starting somewhere else (the Harry Dresden files by Jim Butcher and the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne are fantastic entry points).

The protagonist of the novel is Jonathan Shade. One of the things that makes Jonathan stand out is that while he’s fully initiated to the existence of magic and the supernatural, he has no magic. And yet he is immune to magic, and this anomaly promises to turn into a mystery about his true nature that will have to eventually be unravelled. Three years ago, Jonathan died, and after being brought back to life he acquired the ability to see ghosts. Jonathan is a private investigator, and when he arrives at his office at the start of the novel, there is a client waiting for him. It happens to be Naomi Miller, his ex-girlfriend who declined his marriage proposal five years ago. Naomi asks Jonathan to investigate the murder of her mother, Kathy, and prove that magic was somehow responsible for causing her father to kill her mother. Jonathan reluctantly takes the case even though there is indisputable video evidence that shows Naomi’s father killing her mother. In terms of the plot structure, Modern Sorcery employs one of the elements from noir detective fiction in that the mystery that sends the story into motion is easily and soon resolved, only for the detective to find a more sinister and dangerous plot lurking beneath the surface. In a classic noir detective novel, the corrupt underbelly of society would in some way involve the wealthy elite and/or law enforcement. In this particular urban fantasy setting, the corruption lies within the elite echelons of the magical community. Modern Sorcery also incorporates the noir convention of the femme fatale in the form of Naomi Miller. Jonathan never got closure to his relationship with Naomi, and their shared past together is his primary motivation for taking her case and agreeing to help her. If you are a fan of classic noir detective fiction, you’ll feel right at home in the world of Modern Sorcery.

This year, I’ve written a lot about what feels like a shift toward long sections of internal narrative from the protagonists of urban fantasy novels that come at the cost of developing vibrant supporting characters who I can care about. The balance between dialogue and narrative in Modern Sorcery is much more balanced and that is a point in its favor. Not surprising, the difference equates to a strong supporting cast of characters who garnered my interest and did more than just play their role in the story. Jonathan’s circle of friends includes Kelly Chan, his partner and the owner of a dojo. Kelly is skilled in the martial arts, and not only is she Jonathan’s primary sidekick but she’s also his protector (sort of like Jack Dalton is MacGyver’s protector and best friend). I love Kelly and want to see more of her and how she develops as the series continues. We also meet Esther, the resident ghost who is bound to an old Underwood typewriter in Jonathan’s office. Esther cannot go more than fifteen feet away from the typewriter, so when Jonathan wants some privacy he moves her typewriter into another room or when he wants her help he takes the typewriter with him. Esther is definitely one source of comic relief but she’s also just plain adorable. Because you can’t have a private detective without some form of law enforcement-type character, there’s also Patrick O’Malley, a Denver PD homicide detective. Rounding out the supporting cast is Sharon, who works as a librarian at the University of Colorado-Boulder library. I won’t spoil it but it’s also going to be obvious to well-read readers what Sharon’s true identity is. She’s another character who I can’t wait to see more of in future books in this series. Truthfully, the supporting characters of Modern Sorcery are what make me think this series has potential to become one that I love.

I’ve said this before but it applies to Modern Sorcery so I’ll say it again. The first book in this series is like the pilot episode of a new television show, where I liked the pilot well enough but need another episode before deciding if I’m definitely hooked. Like I said above, I’ve already added the second book to my to-read list and it’s more than a little likely that I’ll read the next book sooner rather than later (by the way, the next book in the series is Acheron Highway). I have no regrets about reading this book and if you’re looking for a new series to try, I’d recommend giving Modern Sorcery a chance.

Have you read Modern Sorcery or any of the other books in the Jonathan Shade series? What did you think? Should I keep reading?

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