Series: PETER WARLOCK
Plot Type: UF
Ratings: V3; S2; H2
Publisher and Titles: Tor
Dark Magic (hardcover, e-book, audiobook—2012; paperback—4/2013)
Shadow People (hardcover, e-book, audiobook— 6/2013)
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
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?
BOOK 2: Shadow People
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:
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:
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.