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Monday, September 13, 2010


Author:  Stacia Kane
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) with Romance
Publisher and Titles: Del Rey
     "The Brave Tale of Maddie Carver" (prequel, free story)
     Unholy Ghosts (5/2010)
     Unholy Magic (7/2010)
     City of Ghosts (7/2010)
     "Rick the Brave" in Home Improvement: Undead Edition (8/2011)
     Sacrificial Magic (3/2012)
     "Home" (e-book novella, 4/2012)
     "Finding Magic" (e-book novella, 6/2012)
     Chasing Magic (6/2012)

This post was updated on 8/18/12 to include a review of Chasing Magic.

     I've seen a few negative comments about this series from readers who love their formulaic urban fantasy heroinessarcastic, brave, good-hearted, etc., etc. Well, Caesura ("Chess") Putnam has all of those traits, but, unfortunately, they are overpowered by her horrific drug addiction, which began during her childhood when various foster parents fed her drugs to keep her passive and easy to control. Now, Chess is a full-blown junkie, using vast quantities of pills and powders to get through each and every day. She uses her drugs to blot out memories of extensive abuse during a childhood spent in a series of awful foster homes where she was routinely subjected to horrific sexual abuse and other torturous treatment. Although the drugs frequently muddle her mind, Chess is a powerful witch and has a successful career working for the Church as a debunker, investigating citizens' claims that ghosts are haunting their homes. Her self-image is mostly negative; she views herself as one big scar—unlovable and unwanted by anyone. This self view causes huge problems in both her professional, and especially in her personal, relationships.

     Some readers have also criticized the diversity in language and culture between the two parts of Chess's world, but I view this as a fresh approach to the urban social structure. In the poor, hard-scrabble Downside, the underclass live and talk as if they live in Dickensian London, while the upper class out in the suburbs live and talk just like modern-day Americans.  

     At the top of this world is the Church, which saved the world 24 years ago when all of dead arose as ghosts and killed millions of people. The Church was able to banish most of the ghosts to the City of Eternity, a huge underground cavern where the dead are imprisoned forever. Unfortunately, some ghosts still remain on earth, haunting various locations that are generally related to their previous mortal lives. Ghosts in this world lose their humanity after death, existing as vicious spirits seeking to kill as many humans as possible. If they remain on mortal earth, they can manifest into beings solid enough to brandish lethal weapons—not to mention their very sharp fangs. The only protection people have against the ghosts is the Church and its witches, who are the only ones with the ability to banish ghosts to the City of Eternity. Now, most citizens believe in no god and have no faith; they believe only the "Truth" of the Church.

     As the series opens, Chess has two love interests: Terrible, Bump's thuggish enforcer, and Lex, her drug dealer and the son of Slobag, a rival drug dealer. She has feelings for both of them but believes that each wants her only for sex. Chess's romantic situation changes as the series progresses as she eventually begins to finds true love with Terrible, although her romantic path is, of course, filled with anguished self-deprecation and stormy misunderstandings every step of the way.

     This is one of my favorite paranormal series. Chess is a heartbreakingly courageous heroine as she keeps trying to play the cards she has been dealt in life. Kane does a great job with the development of Chess's character as the series progresses. Chess is always conflicted between her job with the Church and her debt to Bump, and she must also deal with her relationship with Terrible as the two become closer and closer. Terrible is a totally non-typical hero, but as loutish as he may appear when you first meet him in Unholy Ghosts, his character grows gradually into a gentle and loving companion to Chess as the series goes on, even though he maintains his gruff and brutish exterior to everyone else. The plots are well developed, and the action is compelling.  I can't wait for the next book.

     READ-ALIKES:  If you like the dark tone and tortured heroine of CHESS PUTNAM, you would probably also enjoy Kim Harrison's THE HOLLOWS series and Rachel Vincent's SHIFTERS/WERECATS series as well as her brand new UNBOUND series. You might also enjoy Lilith Saintcrow's JILL KISMET series, which just concluded.

       BOOKS 1, 2, & 3       
     In Unholy Ghosts, Chess is forced to take on a risky assignment from Bump, her local drug dealer, because she owes him a lot of money for her daily drugs.

     By the time we get to Unholy Magic, Chess's drug use is so heavy and her behavior so addled that I wanted to reach in and drag her straight to rehab before she could do any more damage to her personal, social, and professional life! Book 2 delves deeper into Chess's history and personal relationships as she solves the serial murders of Downside prostitutes.

     In City of Ghosts,  Chess gets put under a binding spell as she works to catch yet another serial killer. This all sounds terribly dark and seedy, and it is—but Kane tells Chess's story sympathetically, and the constant action moves the plots right along.

       BOOK 4: Sacrificial Magic       
     As the book opens, Chess is given the job of determining if a ghost is haunting a school that is in the middle of Slobag's territory. Another churchwitch was originally assigned to the project, but he has disappeared, leaving behind only a mass of unintelligible notes. Neither the staff nor the students in the school cooperate with Chess until Lex stops by and gives her a passionate kiss—right in front to them. He swears he did it only to get Chess some cooperation, but she knows that he did it so that the news would quickly get back to Terrible. Lex was hurt when Chess ended their mostly sexual affair in the previous book, and he'd like to get her back in his bed. The main plot follows Chess, sometimes alone and sometimes with either Terrible or Lex, as she unravels the clues and figures out who is haunting the school and why.

     In the meantime, bodies are being found in Bump's part of townbodies of people who have been murdered with magic. Bump orders Chess to investigate the killings and tell him the identity of the murderer. A street war is going on between Slobag and Bump as Slobag tries to wrest the Downside from Bump's control, so Bump is pretty sure that Slobag is responsible for the murders, particularly since rumors are flying about Slobag's mysterious new witch.

     Relationship issues play a big part in this book, with Chess wanting a life with Terrible but messing things up time and time again because she just can't accept the fact that anyone could possibly love her and want to be with her for anything more than sex. Late in the book when Terrible tells Chess that he loves her, Chess responds like this: "It wasn't fair that she should panic; it wasn't right,  and she was suddenly angry...that the man she loved was telling her he loved her, that he was trying to show her how much, and all she could feelaside from the physicalwas scared....she was sick of being scared." (p. 295)  So...lots of interior monologues that overflow with angst and one big fight between Chess and Terrible that she fears has ended their relationship for good.

     Chess's drug use seems to be getting worse, not better, in each book. By now, she is taking handfuls of pills and powders several times a day, and it's hard to see how she will ever be able to quit, or even slow down. I imagine that the author has something up her sleeve—something magical, no doubt—that will help Chess out of this situation, at least I hope so, because the heavy drug use is beginning to get in the way of the story—for me, at least. But I'm still rooting for Chess and looking forward to book 5, in which Lex takes over his father's empire.

        NOVELLA: "Home"       
     This novella takes place shortly after Chess tells Terrible that she loves him, and she still has that walking-on-a-cloud feeling of early-relationship passion. As the story opens, the Church sends Chess out to investigate a complaint that a married couple has a ghost residing in their home. When Chess learns that the couple summoned the ghost—which is illegal and punishable by imprisonment—she listens to the couple's story and, influenced by her own romantic situation, makes a decision that she would not have made before her relationship with Terrible got serious. This is a nice illustration of how love is transforming Chess' outlook on life.

        BOOK 5:  Chasing Magic        
     As the story opens, both Bump and Lex are dealing with a powerful witch who is magically poisoning the Downside's drug supply, turning users into mindless zombies completely under the unknown witch's control. Chess must figure out how to counteract the witch's spell as Terrible helps her track him down. This is the action plot, and it builds up to the requisite climactic battle in which Chess must out-magic the villain.

     The sub-plots are all connected with Chess's usual relationship problems. Her drug use is getting out of control to the point that she nearly ODs, and Terrible, for the first time, tries to get her to slow down with her drugs—resulting in feelings of shame and humiliation for Chess. Lex, who has succeeded his father as the boss of his part of the Downside, has hired a killer to assassinate Terrible, and when Chess begs him to leave Terrible alone, Lex tries to get her into bed with him once again. When Terrible finds out about Chess's visit to Lex, their relationship takes another hit. Chess loves Terrible, but she wants to remain friends with Lex. Chess's continuation of her friendship with Lex, by the way, is one of the few wrong notes (for me, anyhow) in this book. Lex is trying to kill Terrible; he taunts both Chess and Terrible constantly about his previous sexual relationship with Chess—so why doesn't she just cut him loose? She justifies herself by reminding herself (and the reader) that Lex has saved her life a number of times and that she can always rely on Lex (mostly for free drugs), but if she claims to have such a deep and abiding love for Terrible, how can she keep hurting him by continuing to be buddies with Lex? 

    Another relationship problem comes when Chess's sole Church friend, Elder Griffin, meets Terrible for the first time and realizes that Chess has shared her power with him. He forces Chess to tell him the whole story about killing the psychopomp and bringing Terrible back to life (which she did in an earlier book) and then agrees not to turn her in to the Church because if he did, Chess would face certain execution. Elder Griffin also conveys his deep disappointment in Chess and pretty much turns his back on their friendship from that point on. Before he cuts her off, though, he helps her design a sigil that will protect Terrible from the effects of dark magic—a side effect of what Chess did to him. 

     Throughout the book, Chess continues to blame herself for just about everything that goes wrong in the lives of her friends. At one point she thinks to herself, that she is of no use to anyone, not to Terrible, not to her friends, "or everyone else, really, everyone she'd ever met, everyone who'd ever been unlucky or stupid enough to depend on her." (p. 260). She believes that "she wasn't good enough and never would be, that she deserved all of the pain she'd gotten in her life, all of the abuse. She'd been born bad; she'd been born with something...something wrong with her, something she could never make right. She didn't belong in the world." (p. 291) The problem is that these words—or very similar ones—are repeated constantly throughout all of the books in the series. Chess never seems to make any progress on improving her self esteem, and that's starting to drag down the story lines. At least, this time she reaches inside herself and uses that self-hate to fuel her magical powers, but usually it's just a pity party for poor Chess. I keep hoping that Kane will reach into her bag of inventive plots and come up with a solution that will put Chess on a more positive path while still maintaining her tough, independent character. Maybe Terrible could slip some antidepressants into her drug stash. With its inventive mythology and quirky characters, this has been one of my favorite series from the very beginning, and I hope that Kane will find a way to redirect Chess's emotional life.

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