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This world is mostly human. In fact as the series opens, the only supernatural creatures that exist in this alternate Manhattan are stone men—gargoyles, or grotesques. In the series opener, the gargoyle who is at the center of the story, Stanis (aka Stan, aka Stanislav),perches on the roof of a privately owned building overlooking Gramercy Park. This gargoyle isn't the usual ugly, misshapen waterspout statue, however. Check out the cover art—he's a handsome young man even if he is made of stone.
The building that houses Stanis is owned by the Belarus (pronounced Bell air' us) family, whose ancestor, Alexander, was a great stonemason and architect who built a real estate empire in Manhattan decades ago. Actually, Alexander was more than a stonemason. He was a Spellmason, a mage with the ability to work magic on stone to the point of transmuting stone into a living thing. The residents of Gramercy Park building are Alexander's descendants: his great-great-granddaughter, Alexandra (Lexi); her parents; and her brother, Devon. Devon is the heir apparent for the real estate business, and Lexi dabbles in the arts, particularly sculpture.
The supporting characters include Lexi's two friends: Aurora (Rory) Torres, a dance student who has been Lexi's BFF since they were children, and Marshall, a geeky gamer who lives in a world of Dungeons and Dragons. Marshall has just become Rory's roommate, although he and Rory are not a romantic couple.
Strout also writes the SIMON CANDEROUS series, which tells the story of a talented psychometrist who has decided to go straight after years of using his magical talents in illegal ways. Click HERE to read my review of that series (which I like a lot better than this one).
BOOK 1: Alchemystic
As the story opens, Stanis wakes up to find himself looking out over a city that looks very different from the one that he remembers. He has obviously been asleep for many decades, but something has awakened him.
Meanwhile, Devon Belarus is killed in a building collapse, and Lexi gets pulled out of her comfortable artsy life and forced into the family business. As she is walking home from work one night, she is mugged by a tattooed man with a knife who grabs her and hisses, "Where is it?...We've been looking so very long." (p. 32) Devon tries to escape through an alley, but gets stuck at the top of a fence. Just as she begins to think that she is about to die, someone comes to her rescue and her assailant disappears. At this point, she has no idea what happened: Who was her attacker? What did he want? Who rescued her? Where did they both go? As the plot unwinds, she gets the answers to all of those questions.
When Lexi is attacked and rescued again a few days later, she sees her rescuer: a seven-foot tall man who is made of stone. Stanis explains that he is a gargoyle whose sole purpose is to protect her family. Over the next few days, Lexi and Stanis hold several conversations during which she learns that Stanis was created by her great-great-grandfather and that Alexander was a magical Spellmason. When Alexander fled from enemies in Europe and came to America, he put a spell of protection on his family that was meant to last for generations. Unfortunately, the spell is weakening, and that has allowed the family's enemies to find them. The weakening of the spell is the catalyst for Stanis' awakening.
Soon, Lexi is immersed in a study of books and papers in her ancestor's magical library as she tries to figure out a way to locate four soul stones that she hopes will give Stanis more power so that she can somehow restore strength to the protection spell. As Lexi and her buddies search for the stones, they get into more and more dangerous trouble and eventually run into the villains of the story, who want two things: Alexander's spell book and the death of all remaining members of the Belarus family.
The premise of the series is fresh and inventive; we don't find many gargoyle heroes in the UF world. Unfortunately, the story-telling and characterization leave a lot to be desired. The author presents his expositional material in the form of an improbable dialogue between Lexi and Rory. In an awkward conversation, they each explain some of their back-stories in a manner that two old friends would never do. So...the book gets off to a bad start.
Then, there's the characterization: Lexi, Rory, and Marshall remind me of the wacky gang in the Scooby-Doo cartoons as they set out on unlikely adventures, wield unfamiliar weaponry (like a medieval pole arm) with ease, and easily defeat experienced attackers who out-weigh them by hundreds of pounds. Even the two casts of characters match up: Lexi is the rich, always-in-danger Daphne; Rory is Velma, with her dark-rimmed eyeglasses (although Rory doesn't have quite the brain power that Velma has); and Marshall is Shaggy, the rumpled slacker. I guess Stanis is supposed to be handsome Fred, although that comparison doesn't play out as well as the others. The only one missing is Scooby. Lexi's team even does the idiotic "let's split up" bit during one danger-filled scene, just like the Scooby gang always does, episode after episode. Strout's cardboard characters do one crazy, irresponsible, unbelievable thing after another. For example, in the scene in which Lexi and Stanis first get acquainted (p. 98), she asks him whether he can fly well, and when he says yes, she jumps off the top of a building, wanting the experience of flying and assuming that he will catch her. I don't know about you, but I'm not looking for a harebrained heroine who would do a stupid thing like that.
Here's another improbability: Within days of learning about Spellmasonry, Lexi is able to create her own animated stone creature. She has never done anything magical in the twenty years of her pampered life, but she can instantly animate a brick. Although Lexi may have some genetic Spellmason talent, to have it manifest itself instantly, without training or instruction of any kind, goes beyond the limits of even fantasy expectations.In another impossible-to-believe scene, Rory the dancer successfully thwarts two muscular thugs who trap her and Lexi on a ship's gangplank. Rory has absolutely no magical talent, no martial arts skills, and no weapons, but we're supposed to believe that she can throw one man over the side and beat the other one into unconsciousness. Once again, that's too implausible even for UF. Characters who can do these types of things in UF stories almost always have some kind of magical powers. What frosts the cake in the latter scene is that Lexi loudly and repeatedly berates Rory for her beating of their attackers—men who were coming after them with long, sharp knives in their hands and murder in their hearts. There's a time to be soft-hearted, and then there's a time to toughen up and just thank your BFF for handling a threat.
I could go on and on with listing these unbelievable scenes, and I haven't even mentioned the fact that although Stanis is flying around in heavily populated Manhattan (and even appears before a crowd of people, including security guards, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art after crashing though a window), there is no mention of a mysterious stony, winged creature in newspapers or police reports. Apparently, people see Stanis but then just shrug and go about their business. I know that New Yorkers are blasé and jaded, but please...
This first book was a disappointment. I expected to be reading a great story because I have enjoyed Strout's SIMON CANDEROUS series, but that didn't happen.