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Thursday, February 27, 2014


Author:  Jaye Wells
Series:  PROSPERO'S WAR   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
          Dirty Magic (1/2014)
          Cursed Moon (8/2014)
          Deadly Spells (2/2015)  

This post was revised on 3/20/15 to include a review of Deadly Spells, the third novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels..  

            NOVEL 3:  Deadly Spells            
      FAIR WARNING: This review of Deadly Spells      
      contains spoilers for the previous two novels.      
     Someone is murdering the coven leaders in the Cauldron district, Babylon's magical sluma ghetto for Adepts. First to be attacked is Charm (who is running the Votary Coven while Abe Prospero is in prison), and then Harry Bane (who recently took over the Sanguinarians after his father's death). A single eyewitness at Charm's crime scene—a potion-addled hexhead—swears that he saw a gigantic black cat, a cat that then turned into a huge man with onyx-black skin. After some political pushing and shoving, the MEA is assigned to solve the case. A new nemesis emerges in the form of Detective Pat Duffy of the Babylon Police Department (BPD), the new head of homicide for the Cauldron precinct. Duffy is an Adept who disdains other Adepts, particularly Kate, with her history in dirty magic. Duffy is a protégé of Kate's BPD boss (and adversary), Captain Eldritch.

     As more clues are discovered, Special Agent Miranda Gardner (prickly lead agent of the Babylon MEA), realizes that they are dealing with A Morte, a vicious and powerful Brazilian cartel that specializes in dirty magic. The black cat at Charm's crime scene was actually a powerful shaman whose skin has turned pitch-black because of his long-term overuse of dirty potion magic that allows him to teleport and to shapeshift. Grant has a history with A Morte. Before she was assigned to Babylon, she led a team against A Morte and lost them all, including her fiancé. The MEA held her responsible for the deaths of her teammates, and the Babylon assignment was her punishment and her last chance at proving herself.

     If you are a regular series reader, you'll guess that Kate's ex-boyfriend, Volos, is involved in this mess. The first murder took place (coincidentally?) on the same day as his inauguration as mayor of Babylon. Soon, Volos involves himself in the investigation, demanding that Kate report directly to him on the MEA's progress. What are Volos' motives? What are his intentions toward Kate? Is there a good guy underneath his slick, con-man public face, or is he rotten to the core? You'll see all sides of Volos in this book, so you'll have to make your own assessment, just as Kate does. Volos' actions during the final showdown scenes are, as usual, unpredictable and difficult to interpret.

     Mixed into the murder investigation are some more personal story lines. Baba, the eccentric, grandmotherly, Mundane witch is now living with Kate and Danny, and her presence has slightly lightened up their sometimes tense sibling relationship. Danny is attending a snooty private school on a scholarship and is being bullied by a Mundane kid who is the son of a wealthy and prominent businessman. Danny's girlfriend, Lunaanother Adept scholarship studentis also having problems. (You will be able to figure out the identity of her bully far sooner than Kate does.) Then, Volos draws an investigative TV reporter's attention to Kate, and the reporter begins to interview Jane's friends and enemies so that she can put together one of those "news-at-eleven exclusives"—a smear of innuendos that would demolish all the progress Kate has made in creating a new, clean life for herself and for Danny. Meanwhile, the up-close and personal relationship between Kate and her partner, Drew ("Macho") Morales, is heating up, and sexual tension builds throughout the story, to the consternation of Volos, who obviously believes that Kate will eventually see the light and return to him.

     All the way through the book, Kate continues to struggle with her rigid definitions of "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," "dirty magic" and "clean magic." When she left the coven, she made a personal vow never to use magic again, but she has already broken that vow. Eventually, Gardner advises Kate, "You're gonna have to get over yourself and start fighting the war in the real world, not some fictional battle where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are clear-cut. In a perfect world our moral choices would be simple, but our world is far from perfect."

     Every time I pick up a book by Jaye Wells I know that I am on the verge of a great reading experience, and that is definitely true with Deadly Spells. The story pulled me in from the very first page, keeping me engrossed right through to the dramatic ending. Wells is a master of character development and plot construction. All of the characters, even the minor ones, are fully drawnfrom physical appearance to attitudes and motivations. The plot begins as a simple, if gruesome, murder, but it gradually becomes more and more complex, with new discoveries appearing naturally as the investigation continues. You won't find any improbable leaps in logic or deus ex machina in this book. All of the plot action evolves so artlessly that it would be easy to overlook how much skill went into the planning and execution. This is another terrific addition to a strong series. 

     I recommend that you read this book in chronological order as part of the series, not as a stand-alone. To read or listen to an excerpt from Deadly Spells, click HERE to go to the book's page, where you can click either on the cover art for a print excerpt or the "Listen" icon for an audio clip.

One small quibble: Orbit needs to hire a better copy proofer, one who actually proofreads the text instead of relying on an electronic spellcheck to catch every error. This book contains a number of small, but annoying, spellcheck-proof word errors that should have been caught before it went to press. I won't include a long list, just two examples to give you an idea of what I mean: "burn" for "burp" on p. 115; "by" for "my" on p. 327. Small errors, I admit, but they should have been caught.

     Wells has created a fresh and inventive world in this series—a world of magic in a decaying Rust Belt city. In a blurb on her web site, Wells explains that the series "combines the action of police procedurals with the speculative elements of urban fantasy. It's a world where cops and wizards are fighting a war over addictive, dangerous, and illegal dirty magic." In this world, "Just say no" isn't an anti-drug slogan, it's an anti-dirty-magic slogan. In the town of Babylon, Ohio (modeled after Cleveland, according to the author), magic, not meth, is the drug of choice. The population is divided between Adepts (people born with a genetic predisposition to do magic) and Mundanes (non-magical people). The Adepts cook up magical concoctions, and the Mundanes ingest or inject them, becoming hopelessly addicted in no time at all. In this mythology, all Adepts are instantly recognizable because they are left handed (like me!). Many Mundanes distrust Adepts (whom they call Sinisters) because they believe that anyone who can use magic will become corrupted by its power.

     Magic is not all dirty, though. Clean magic is sold openly and legally in the form of potions and powders that provide life-improving powers. Instead of taking Viagra, men of a certain age take a magic-infused sex potion. Instead of dieting, women take magical diet potions. Instead of using a washer and dryer, people use magic to clean their clothes. Unfortunately, the problem with all magic is that it is addictive—just like drugs (or electronic devices) in our world. Dirty magic is more dangerous and more addictive than clean magic because the wizards who produce dirty magic products promise spectacular results, but use illegal and harmful ingredients. The federal government has a Magical Enforcement Agency (MEA) that fights a losing battle to keep dirty magic off the streets. Click HERE to go to the author's MEA web page, which has links to more information about the MEA, including an FAQ page and a memorandum from Agent Miranda Gardner—the MEA boss.

     Babylon is a dying city whose steel-based economy was destroyed back in the 1960s when Chinese alchemists revolutionized steel processing, causing the collapse of the U.S. steel industry. After those alchemists changed the world's economy, people began to study ancient magic and to apply new scientific methods to the old concepts. Now, the biggest industry in the U.S. is the magic industry.

     Babylon is divided into two parts: the magical slum (aka the Cauldron) and the upscale part of town where the Mundanes live. The Cauldron is subdivided into sections similar to the way that street gangs divide their turf. Each section is run by and populated by a different coven, each headed by a wizard. These are the top three covens:

    > Votary Coven (aka the Votaries): This coven is named for wizards who use an alchemical form of dirty magic and is led by Abraxas Prospero from his prison cell. As the series opens, Abraxas has been in prison for five years. Before his imprisonment, he functioned as a godfatherkeeping all of Babylon's covens in line.

    > Mystical Coven of the Sacred Orgasm (aka the Os): They specialize in sex magic and are led by the priestess Aphrodite Johnson (or Jones, both names are used in book 1, on pp. 39 and 395). Aphrodite is a sacred hermaphrodite, “created by wizards using powerful alchemical magic that makes a person exactly half-male and half-female.” (Cursed Moon, p. 30)

    Sanguinarian Coven (aka the Sangs): They specialize in blood magic and are led by Ramses Bane and his son, Hieronymus.    

     The Babylon Police Department (BPD) has mostly Mundane officers on staff, with just a few Adepts, who are viewed suspiciously by the Mundanes. The series heroine is a BPD patrol officer named Kate Prospero. Kate grew up in the Votaries coven, the dirty-magic-cooking niece of Abraxas, whom she calls Uncle Abe. Ten years ago, for reasons that are made clear part-way through book 1, Kate left the coven and struck out on her own, taking her younger brother, Danny, with her. Since then, she has worked hard to make a life for the two of them—a life that includes absolutely no magic. Kate's beat is the Cauldron, and she works hard every day dealing with the sad, but often violent, dirty-magic addicts (aka hexheads) who squat in abandoned buildings and hang out in dark alleys. Kate longs for promotion to a level at the BPD that deals with the creators and dealers of dirty magic. As she explains, "To make a dent, you had to go after the runners and stash boys, the potion cookersthe moneymen. The way I figured, better to hunt the vipers instead of the 'hood rats who craved the bite of their fangs." (Dirty Magic, p. 1) She hates all magic, and she wants to wipe it out of Babylon. Here, Kate muses about clean and dirty magic: "Black versus white, legal versus illegal. Hell, the Big Magic corporations claimed their government-sanctioned potions weren't even addictive, which they 'proved' using studies they themselves had funded. But anyone who cooked potions could tell you the line between the two was little more than vapor. Whether you used it with good intentions or ill, magic was magic, and instead of being black or white, most of it was smoke-screen gray." (Dirty Magic, p. 20)

     Just a word about the cover art, which, by the way, is quite attractive and detailed. On Wells' web site, she hints that the symbols integrated into the artwork provide clues to the alchemical process on which each novel is based. So far, this hasn't done me much good because my knowledge of alchemy is nil, but you may have better luck. Click HERE to go to a web site that, in my opinion, has the best compilation and clearest drawings of alchemy symbols among the many I found on the Internet. Even with my limited knowledge of alchemy, I was able to figure out that the cover of book 1 definitely provides a significant clue to at least one key alchemy ingredient in the plot.

     In addition to this series, Wells also wrote the five-novel SABINA KANE SERIES, which stars a half-vampire/half-mage heroine who has lots of family issues (particularly with her grandmother). Click HERE to read my reviews of that series.  

         NOVEL 1:  Dirty Magic              
     The incident that kicks off the conflict occurs in the opening scene as Kate comes across a hexhead (dirty-magic junkie) in the process of killing—actually eating—a woman in a dark alley in the Cauldron. This guy is like no one Kate has ever seen: "The beast barely looked human His hair was long and matted in some patches…as if he'd been infected with mange. The lower half of his face was covered in a shaggy beard. The pale skin around his yellow eyes and mouth was red and raw. His teeth were crooked and sharp. Too large for his mouth to corral. Hairy shoulders almost touched his ears like a dog with his hackles up." (p. 6) The man/creature runs off with Kate in hot pursuit. When he eventually reaches the entrance to the old subway tunnels (an underground haven for the lowest level of Cauldron inhabitants), she catches up with him and is forced to fatally shoot him when he attacks her. Unfortunately for Kate, the man she killed was an MEA informant, so the local MEA leader, Special Agent Miranda Gardner, is not happy with Kate about her part in his death. 

     Soon, though, Kate is assigned to the MEA team—temporarily, Gardner insists—because of Kate's coven background and her knowledge of the Cauldron. The plot focuses on the attempts by the MEA team to figure out who is manufacturing and widely distributing the dirty magic that caused their informant to turn into a mindlessly violent wolf-creature. As the investigation moves along (following the usual police procedural routine of stake-outs and informants), Kate and her team begin to suspect that John Volos, a wealthy wizard with the skills for and history of manufacturing dirty magic, is responsible for this new dirty magic—which, on the street, is called Gray Wolf. Problematically for Kate, Volos was her lover back in her coven days. When she left the coven, she dumped him, leaving him positioned to take her place as the heir to the leadership of the Votary Coven. Since then, though, Volos has chosen a different path, first by testifying against Uncle Abe when he was tried for various mobster-like crimes involving dirty magic. After that, Volos gradually became extremely wealthy and respectable through a series of successful land development deals in various parts of the Cauldron, followed by some major philanthropic efforts and a close friendship with the mayor. 

     Wells does a great job with the difficult task of introducing the reader to this new world and to her lead characters. She parcels out the elements of the mythology seamlessly, blending them smoothly into the dialogue and into Kate's interior monologues. Kate tells the story in her first-person voice, and Wells handles this tricky point of view gracefully and believably, with none of the awkwardness frequently found in the works of less skilled writers. The cast of characters includes Kate's brother (Danny), her loyal MEA team members, her prickly BPD boss, her best friend (Penelope Griffin, aka "Pen"), her eccentric neighbor ("Baba"), and her primary informant (Little Man—"LM")—one of the most original and quirky characters I've seen in a long time. Do you know what a homunculus is?

     Kate herself is a complex, deeply unhappy person who has spent the past ten years trying to forget the first two decades of her life. She has dedicated her life to two things: raising her brother in a magic-free home and being the best cop that she can be. Kate is so immersed in her empty, repetitive, day-to-day routine that it takes an altercation with her brother to make her realize how dismal her life really is—with no real human-to-human connections (except for her brother and her best friend) and no life at all outside home and work. As Danny matures (he is now 16), he wants to learn about magic; after all, he is an Adept and magic is part of his genetic heritage. This terrifies Kate because she knows exactly what happens when magic worms its way into your life. She even attends Arcane Anonymous group meetings regularly to reinforce her personal rejection of magic.

     On top of these troubles, Kate is forced to deal with her lingering feelings for John Volos, who is an intriguing character. At first, I was hoping that he would turn out to be a good guy and that he and Kate would rekindle their flame, but by the end, I began to believe that Volos is a charismatic manipulator who uses other people to get his way. I'm still not sure which way this character is going—which adds yet another intriguing element to the story!

     I highly recommend this series based on this opening novel. The plot is well constructed; the action scenes are fast-paced and gritty; the characters are nicely introduced, with hints of more development to come; and the ending is satisfying, in an uncomfortable, "oh-no-he-didn't!" kind of way. Give this one a try. I think that you'll enjoy it. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Dirty Magic.

            NOVEL 2:  Cursed Magic            
      FAIR WARNING: This review of Cursed Magic      
      contains spoilers for Dirty Magic.      
     Babylon law enforcement agencies—the Babylon Police Department (BPD) and the Magical Enforcement Agency (MEA)—are preparing for trouble in the days before a rare Halloween Blue Moon rises over the city. A new villain has come to town promising all kinds of trouble, but not of the usual type. This bad guy sees himself as the second coming of Dionysus, the god of wine making and religious ecstasy. Dionysus is the Greek version of the Roman god, Bacchus, and the word Bacchanalia—a sexual free-for-all—derives from his name. In both Greek and Roman mythology, Dionysus/Bacchus symbolizes chaos, danger, and unpredictability, so from the beginning we know that Halloween in Babylon is going to be filled with formidable peril for Kate Prospero and her MEA team as they unite with the BPD to protect the city’s citizens.

     In the first chapter, Kate and her partner, Morales, capture a faux leprechaun who sets off a sexual frenzy in a crowd by dosing two policemen with a powerful love potion. The leprechaun works for Dionysus, who stole the potion from Aphrodite Johnson, the hermaphroditic Hierophant (priest/ess)of the Mystical Coven of the Sacred Orgasm. Here, Kate describes Aphrodite: “The left half wore a formfitting red wiggle dress with red stiletto, while the right half wore half a collared shirt, slacks, and a single black wing tip….The weird part was that her lady side was as beautiful and conventionally feminine as her right side was ruggedly handsome and conventionally male….But to me, the most disconcerting feature was how the voice would change depending on which gender the Hierophant chose at the time.” (p. 37) Soon, Kate and her fellow MEA officers find themselves in a race to find Dionysus and stop him before he can carry out his threat of massive violence against the city of Babylon at the rise of the Blue Moon.

     The theme of the book is truth and lies, and the story lines relating to that theme are woven through this police-procedural plot. In the climax of Dirty Magic, Kate broke her promise to avoid the use of magic when she was forced to “cook” a magical potion in order to save her brother’s life. She and her ex-lover, John Volos, agreed to lie about that incident, with Volos accepting everyone’s praise for cooking the magic and saving Danny. Unfortunately, that decision has had several unexpected and unwelcome consequences. Danny now reveres Volos as his hero and is deeply hurt because he believes that Kate refused to use magic to save him. Then, when Kate’s friends hold a huge Arcane Anonymous celebration for her and give her a ten-year abstinence medal, she is filled with guilt and shame because she (and Volos) know that she doesn’t deserve it. When Kate confesses her lie to her best friend, Penelope turns against her and subsequently falls into her own addiction. Meanwhile, Uncle Abe is always in the background meddling in Kate’s life, both physically and emotionally, as Kate tries to juggle her family life, her guilt-filled memories, her work with the MEA team, her conflicted feelings about magic, her hate/love for Volos, and her burgeoning attraction to Morales.

      In the requisite showdown scene at the end, both Kate and Morales are forced to admit some shocking secrets and then deal with their aftermath. Kate also learns the truth about several childhood experiences and faces the harsh reality about her connection with magic.

     This is another solid story that moves Kate a few steps further on her path to true self-actualization. By the end, she is beginning to accept the fact that she will never be able to fully give up magic, but she also realizes that clean magic doesn’t have the same soul-searing effects as dirty magic. The love-interest situation is just getting interesting as Kate and Morales admit their attraction to one another even as Kate continues to fight off the enduring lust she has always felt for Volos.

     Most of the quirky supporting characters from book 1 also show up to add some zing to the story: Mary and Little Man, Baba, the MEA team members, and Kate’s mean-spirited BPD nemesis, Captain Eldritch. Aphrodite Johnson is a great character with lots of potential for further exploration. By the end of this book, Aphrodite owes Kate a few favors, so I’m sure that s/he will be turning up in future story lines.

     Wells is a terrific storyteller who has created a fascinating mythology, a gritty setting, fully-developed characters, and well-crafted plots and subplots. Kate is on her way to being just as complex and conflicted as Wells’s Sabina Kane, the eponymous heroine of her terrific series that recently ended. Although the game saver in this novel verges on being a deus ex machina, it’s such an outrageously off-the-wall X-Files type of ending that I was happy just to sit back and enjoy the whole wacky scene. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Cursed Moon.  

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