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?

review: dead things

Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore (2013)

I stumbled upon Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore when I was trying to find new authors to read.  I decided to give this one a try and it’s been on my e-reader for a couple of months.  Dead Things exists within the urban fantasy genre, and if you don’t know what that means you’re not alone.  In basic terms, urban fantasy gives you a world and setting that looks very much like our own but that setting is occupied by all the things that go bump in the night–vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and lots of other supernatural creatures.  The setting for Dead Things is Los Angeles, and in some ways it has the feel of fantasy noir.  Blackmoore doesn’t create a dark paranormal underbelly beneath the sun-drenched glitter of Los Angeles, but there is the potential to see his vision of Los Angeles evolve into that kind of world that you might expect from fantasy noir.  Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the book in a different format I’m experimenting with for my reviews.

Is it part of a series?  Yes.  Dead Things is the first book in Blackmoore’s Eric Carter series.  The next book in the series is Broken Souls and the third book, Hungry Ghosts was just released last week (February 2017).  One note that might help in case you are interested in starting the series–there is a fourth book called City of Souls that takes place within the world of Eric Carter, but from everything I can find, it does not feature Eric Carter.

What is it about?  Eric Carter is a mage and necromancer who receives news that his sister, Lucy, who he hasn’t seen in fifteen years, has been brutally murdered.  He returns to Los Angeles to find the person responsible for her death and exact vengeance.  Complicating his return to Los Angeles is the fact that he is a man going home again after fifteen years of being on his own and out of contact with everyone who had been in his life before.  As the hunt for his sister’s murderer unfolds, Eric is also trying to decide if coming back home (and staying home) is a good idea, if it’s possible to reconnect with the people he left behind, and reconciling the man he is now with the person he was when he left everything behind.

Tell me more about the main character.  Eric Carter is the kind of protagonist you would expect to find in a noir-ish urban fantasy novel.  He is the isolated loner who has lived a nomadic life since he left Los Angeles, never settling down in one place and never thinking of any one place as home.  He’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, street-smart, quick-thinking and smart-talking.  He is a powerful necromancer, which means he can see and speak to the Dead, and though it takes a while for him to reveal this aspect of his character, it is the Dead that he helps and to some extent, saves.  He considers himself to be one of the speakers for the dead, and he gets vengeance and retribution for them (and yes, some would call it justice).  He is their champion and he understands them, a lot more than he understands the living.  He also feels incredible guilt for leaving his sister and his friends behind when he left Los Angeles fifteen years ago.  Dealing with that guilt and finding a way to make things right are two of the primary motivators for his character.  In some ways, he’s like a lot of other male protagonists you find in this genre, but like the world of Los Angeles that Blackmoore presents, he has the potential to be more than average.  In truth, he is only at the beginning of his journey, and though he has developed and undergone important changes by the time the story ends, there is lots of room for more growth and change.

What about the supporting cast?  Tough question.  In this novel, the supporting cast is comprised of Alex, the man who was his best friend and who looked after Eric’s sister after he left home.  Vivian is Eric’s ex-girlfriend, who has become a doctor in the time that he’s been away and moved on to someone else.  There is Tabitha, a waitress who works in the bar Alex owns and is a potential love interest.  The two non-human characters are Darius–who seems to be some kind of genie or djinn perhaps–who owns a bar whose doors move and within which time moves at a different rate than that of the outside world, and Santa Muerte, a goddess who wants Eric to be her right hand assassin.  I don’t want to spoil how the story ends but there will definitely be changes to this supporting cast in the next book.  Eric’s interactions with the supporting characters say just as much about him as they do about the secondary characters themselves, particularly Alex and Vivian, the latter of which is drawn realistically, I think, but at the same time she grated on my goodwill as a reader.

What is the narrative style?  I think this is an important aspect of the book to highlight because before reading Dead Things I started a different book that I put down after fifty pages because it was told in the narrative style I dislike the most–that being multiple point-of-view (and when I say multiple I mean from the perspective of three or more characters).  Blackmoore takes the more traditional route in terms of narrative style and it will be familiar and comfortable to readers of the genre, choosing to tell the story solely from Eric’s first-person point of view.  Another notable aspect of the narrative style is that it is told in the present tense which may feel different to readers who haven’t encountered this before, though I will say it is a style that seems to be growing in popularity.

Should I invest my time?  Another tough question.  One of the things that instantly came to mind while reading this book is that it has the same feel as the Sandman Slim books by Richard Kadrey (also set in Los Angeles, also noir-ish, also told in that present tense, first person narrative style).  The Sandman Slim series is one of my favorites, and though I think the Eric Carter series could be as good, it’s not there yet. I don’t know what the next book in this series will bring.  For me, the first book in a series should make me want to read the next book, if not right away then at least inspire me to immediately add it to my to-be-read list.  I didn’t have that feeling at the end of Dead Things, and admittedly part of this may be due to the way the book ends, which is clearly setting up for the next installment.  I think that if you like this genre, you should at least give the first book in this series a try and decide if you want more.  Personally, there are so many books on my to-read list for the year that I don’t see myself adding Broken Souls to my reading list any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book. I’m just not convinced I want to go back for more.

book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.