Series: PROSPERO'S WAR
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy UF
Ratings: Violence—3-4; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: Orbit
Dirty Magic (1/2014)
Cursed Moon (8/2014)
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.
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."
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 Amazon.com 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.
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:
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.
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