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Thursday, June 20, 2013


Author:  James Swain
Plot Type:  UF     
Ratings:  V3; S2; H2  
Publisher and Titles:  Tor
          Dark Magic (hardcover, e-book, audiobook2012; paperback4/2013)
          Shadow People (hardcover, e-book, audiobook 6/2013)

     The magical members of this world are psychics, a relatively small group who hide their powers for fear of being captured by the government and forced to use their powers for military purposes. The series hero is 25-year-old Peter Warren (aka Peter Warlock), a powerful psychic. Peter is also a world-famous magician, owning his own theater in Manhattan and living a luxurious, limousine life style. Although he has dated TV stars and Swedish supermodels in the past, as the series opens, Peter is living with his assistant, Liza, in a Manhattan townhouse. Liza is a beautiful Chinese-American trapeze artist whose family travels with a circus. Peter fell for her when he first saw her perform, and now she has left her family and the circus behind and has joined his show. 

     Peter has had the requisite UF-hero tragedy in his childhood. When he was just nine, he witnessed his parents being dragged off to their deaths. After being orphaned, he was raised by two psychics, Milly and Max, who are supporting characters in the series. 

     As the series opens, Peter is the head of a group of seven psychics who hold weekly seances to look into the future for trouble in the world. In order to prevent these terrible events from coming true, they anonymously send warning messages to the FBI. 

             BOOK 1:  Dark Magic             

     In the opening scene, Peter and his friends are holding their regular weekly seance when Peter visualizes a horrific incident that will occur in ManhattanTimes Square, to be exactin just a few days. Peter sees people dropping dead in the streets while a strange and sinister man stares at them. The plot follows Peter as he tries to stop the tragedy from happening. 

     There is no easy way to summarize the convolutions of this plot. At first, it seems straightforward, but soon Peter is dealing not only with the original villain, but with a mysterious group called the Order of Astrum, which has a connection with his long-dead parents. As Peter has one confrontation after another with Wolff, the original villain, he must deal with a fierce and sometimes uncontrollable anger that resides deep within himself. He must also deal with his simple-minded girlfriend, Liza, who reacts very badly when she learns that Peter is a psychic and that he is involved in a save-the-world adventure. Liza could care less about the world. She just wants Peter to have deep conversations with her about their relationship. At one point, right in the middle of the most dangerous part of Peter's exploits, she insists that they discuss going into couples counseling. The Peter-Liza relationship is one (but not the only) weak point. For Peter to be so head-over-heels in love with this air-headed woman doesn't say much for the level of his intelligence.

     But let's get back to the plot, which meanders around from one villain to another all the way to the end. Never fear, though, because every time Peter is in danger, he pulls a new power out of his hat and blows his enemies away—or one of his friends does. In one scene, for example, Peter's buddy, Snoop, breaks into the FBI's most secure computer system in less than ten minutes. The reader is never afraid for Peter because he always out-fights, out-thinks, and out-maneuvers everyone else in the book. He even gets police officers and FBI agents to share confidential information with him within moments of meeting them for the first time.

     Another plot problem is the fact that so many scenes include over-the-top elements. For example, the Astrum psychics don't just live in a mansion like other wealthy villains. They have a huge estate that includes "a pagan temple, where the elders could indulge in every sexual fantasy known to man." (p. 203) They have a museum filled with rare and expensive works of art. They even have a castle with a moat. We're told all of this in a single scene that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, and we never see the estate again. Inexplicably, this scene also includes an African dictator named Big Daddy—also a no-show for the rest of the story. When the evil psychics teleport themselves to New York (p. 207), they don't just snap their fingers. Oh no...that's much too simple. Instead, the domed roof of their castle opens and a hydraulic lift raises the platform on which they are standing until it is high above the outside of the palace. It's like a George Lucas movie with its overabundance of special effects. In yet another scene, when Peter's friend is hospitalized in Roosevelt Hospital (p. 237), he references the Seinfeld "Junior Mint" scene. Why include this silly detail? Where was the Tor editor when the author was so obviously unable to edit himself?

     All of the characters are paper-thin, including Peter. Even though he tells us about the grief and violence of his childhood and describes the terrible anger that keeps bubbling up, it never seems real—just words without evidence of true emotions. Even when Peter kills people in the midst of an anger attack, his emotions never come through in the narrative. The most serious problem of all, though is the stilted dialogue, which never, ever rings true. People just don't converse like this. 

     One last nitpick: I was bothered by Swain's lack of knowledge (and lack of research) in a few scenes. For example, in one scene, he has Wolfe change his hair color from black to blond with "a tube of hair dye," (p. 153) "He generously brushed the product into his scalp. Before his eyes, his hair turned from black to sandy blond." (p. 155) That's pretty much impossible. You could go from blond to black that quickly—but you'd need quite a bit more time and a lot more than a glob of dye to go from dark to light. In another scene, Peter's friend, Milly, is in a hospital bed (p. 206). "A pillow was propped behind her head, while several tubes ran out of her arm to a gathering of beeping machines beside her bed." First of all, she would probably have a single IV tube in her arm, and it wouldn't be connected to any machine. The machines would be connected to a heart monitor through electrodes attached to her chest—not to her arm. It's as if Swain just tossed off these scenes without any fact checking. Again, where was the editor?

     Based on the title and the back-cover blurb, I was hoping for a better story, and I think that there is one in therehidden under all that bad dialogue and circuitous plotting. Let's see what happens with book 2.

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from Dark Magic.  

             BOOK 2:  Shadow People             

     Once again, the opening scene is a seance as Peter and his psychic friends try to pick up on any future crimes that might occur in their vicinity. This time, Peter gets drawn into the future by a shadow persona black blob that used to be a real person before its human shell was destroyed. In that future scene, Peter is confronted by a man he nicknames Dr. Deatha fat slob of a man who shoots him in the leg and then tries to run him down with his Volvo. The plot follows Petersometimes alone and sometimes with his FBI friend Garrettas they try to figure out what's going on. Peter and Garrett soon learn that Dr. Death is a serial killer who is on the FBI's watch list, but no one knows his real name or his exact location. When the shadow people begin taking Peter and his friends into the same future scene, they try to find details in the scene that will help them catch the killer, who has murdered a number of young women and plans to kill his next victim in the next few days.

     This book suffers from the same weaknesses as the first book: awkward, unnatural dialogue; short, choppy, subject-verb sentences filled with clichés; poorly developed characters. Add to this a standard horror plot that relies on stereotypical devil worshippers as villains. 

     Here's an example of one silly conversation in which Peter asks for help from a transit cop as he searches for a fellow psychic:

    "Excuse me, but I'm looking for a female fortune-teller named Selena"
     "Describe her," one of the cops said....
     "She's wise beyond her years," he replied.
     The cop pointed straight ahead. "I think I know her...Take the escalator down. You can't miss her." (p. 269)

     What? The cop knows exactly who Peter's looking for when he says that "she's wise beyond her years"? Are you kidding me? (Perhaps this was meant to be humorous, but if so, it misses its mark.)

     The Order of Astrum is still around, with its mysterious "elders" who, in this book, sometimes possess dead bodies in order to communicate with their minions. Dr. Death is a hackneyed horror villain, with his requisite abusive parents, horrific childhood, and use of Satanic actions to get his revenge on the cold, cruel world that has failed him at every turn.   

     Peter continues to be a thinly developed character who tells us what he feels but never really shows us. For example, he tells us over and over how deeply he loves Liza, but we never see any real evidence of that love. All they do is argue about his powers. Liza continues to be single-mindedly focused on forcing Peter to deal with—and preferably turn his back on—his psychic powers so that they can settle down to a "normal" life together. She follows through on the couples counseling in this book, resulting in some new information about Peter's parents, but not much help for their relationship. Here's an example of Liza's lack of empathy as she grills Peter about his ongoing bad dreams:

    "What do you dream about?" she asked.
     "Can we talk about this some other time?"
     "No more running away. I want to know."
     "I dream about the night I lost my parents."
     "Were you traumatized?" (p. 108)

     Since Peter was a mere child when he witnessed his parents being dragged off to their deaths, anyone with half a brain would immediately recognize that of course he was traumatized.

     Peter's witchy friend, Holly, goes off the deep end when she puts a love spell on Peter and attempts to seduce him. Then she starts spying on him by scrying on him around the clock and running to the other psychics every time she thinks he is in danger. They tell her to leave Peter alone—that she just doesn't understand who Peter really is and what his powers are—but then they refuse to explain anything to her, telling her that it's against psychic rules to interfere in another's life. This withholding of information is a theme of the series, and it gets old very quickly, particularly when the psychics do interfere sometimes—whenever they feel like it, thus breaking their own rules.

     All in all, this is not an impressive urban fantasy series. I still think that there is a spark somewhere deep inside the mythology, but it never catches fire because the weak plots and feeble characterization smother and kill it. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Shadow People.

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