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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stephen Blackmoore: ERIC CARTER SERIES

Author:   Stephen Blackmoore     
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy/Horror
Publisher:  Daw
       1   City of the Lost (1/2012)(stand-alone novel that introduces Eric Carter's world)
       2   Dead Things (2/2013)
       3   Broken Souls (8/2014)  
       4   Hungry Ghosts (2/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 3/3/17 to include a review of Hungry Ghosts, the fourth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the  world-building and reviews of the stand-alone prequel novel and the first two Eric Carter novels.

         FAIR WARNING! This review contains spoilers for         
         Dead Things and Broken Souls.        
                         NOVEL 4  Hungry Ghosts                        
     Stephen Blackmoore's dark urban fantasy series follows necromancer Eric Carter through a world of vengeful gods and goddesses, mysterious murders, and restless ghosts.

     Necromancer Eric Carter's problems keep getting bigger. Bad enough he's the unwilling husband to the patron saint of death, Santa Muerte, but now her ex-husband, the Aztec King of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, has come backand it turns out that Carter and he are swapping places. As Mictlantecuhtli breaks loose of his prison of jade, Carter is slowly turning to stone.

     To make matters worse, both gods are trying to get Carter to assassinate the other. But only one of them can be telling him the truth and he can't trust either one. Carter's solution? Kill them both.

     If he wants to get out of this situation with his soul intact, he'll have to go to Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead, and take down a couple of death gods while facing down the worst trials the place has to offer him: his own sins.

     The plot continues the story line from Broken Souls in which Eric is caught in the middle between the two primary Aztec death deities: Santa Muerte (aka Mictecacihuatl), the death goddess, and her ex-husband, Mictlantecuhtli.

     Back in Dead Things, Santa Muerte tricked Eric into marrying her in exchange for doing him a big favor. In Broken Souls, Eric learned the truth about the consequences of his rash decision to marry his powers with those of Santa Muerte: “Mictlantecuhtli is the King of Mictlan [Aztec land of the dead] and since I’m married to Mictecacihuatl I’m the King of Mictlan—he and I are trading places. I’m getting access to his power. But I’m also slowly becoming jade, the stone replacing my flesh like petrified wood. He’s slowly becoming…whatever it is Aztec death gods count as flesh…The last time I saw him I was just beginning to change and he was still stuck in his tomb in Mictlan. Now a good forty percent of my body is green stone, flexible, movable, but stone, nevertheless.”  Santa Muerte and Mictlantecuhtli are each urging Eric to kill the other, but Eric has decided that they both must be destroyed—no matter the consequences. Santa Muerte deserves to die because she tortured and killed Eric’s innocent sister, and Mictlantecuhtli has to go so that Eric’s body turns back into human flesh.

     As if turning into a jade statue isn’t enough, Eric faces several additional problems:
>1. Eric’s old friend, Tabitha Cheung, has been Santa Muerte’s avatar for several years, although she failed to admit that to Eric in Broken Souls. Tabitha has basically been playing Eric, pretending to be his friend while working on the side of Santa Muerte. As Eric describes the situation, Tabitha “has a chunk of Santa Muerte in her soul, and I wasn’t entirely sure she had any of her own.” This means that the death goddess has access to Tabitha’s mind, body, and will. Now that Eric knows the truth, he is hunting Tabitha down, planning to force her to take him through a portal to Mictlan so that he can kill Mictlantecuhtli. He’s hoping that will stop the jade from spreading throughout his body. Then he plans to kill both Tabitha and her mistress. As Eric and Tabitha travel together to Mictlan, Eric begins to wonder if Tabitha might have more control over her soul than he originally believed, so his once ardent desire for her death gradually becomes more ambiguous.
>2. In exchange for a favor in Dead Things, Eric promised the god Quetzalcoatl that he would burn down Mictlan. Quetzalcoatl is tired of waiting for Eric to get the job done, so he steps into the story several times to express his displeasure. Finally, he sends a monstrous creature into Mictlan to knock some sense into Eric just as he’s trying to figure out just how to carry out his plan to kill the two deities.
>3. Meanwhile, after Eric’s friend, Alex, was possessed by a demon (in Dead Things), Alex’s voice somehow began to speak to Eric inside his head. Now, Alex keeps showing up as a full-body hallucination, making snarky comments and urging Eric to make some really bad decisions, all the while transmitting information about Eric’s thoughts and actions back to Mictlantecuhtli.
     The predictable plot basically follows Eric as he finds Tabitha and heads for Mictlan, pursued by human and supernatural enemies every step of the way. Even though Eric knows that he can’t trust anyone, when he learns of the biggest betrayal of them all, he is taken completely by surprise. Luckily, Eric gets some help from an old acquaintance, but unfortunately, that assistance feels like an all-too-convenient deus ex machina. By the end of the story, Eric manages to survive (barely) and to solve some—but perhaps not all—of his Aztec death-deity problems.

     Although Eric Carter started out as an interesting character, Blackmoore has not allowed him to develop. Eric continues to make one bad decision after another, always needing to be rescued from his own mistakes. In this novel, he is never in control, and he never uses his necromancer powers at all. Yes, he uses some magic here and there (mostly spells and wards), but some stronger supernatural creature always pops up just in time to save him when the going gets particularly tough. And also, why does Eric rely so heavily on human-made firearms when he is supposed to have such bad-ass magical powers? Based on Eric’s introduction in Dead Things, I expected more. I have read some reviews that compare Eric to Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, but that’s completely off track. Harry hones his magic, studies his enemies, and mostly fights his own battles—none of which Eric does in this novel, even though this is his third appearance. He is still the same clueless wretch that he was back in Dead Things.

     As for the mythology, I have the same criticism of this novel as I had of Broken Souls. The Aztec mythology—with all of its lengthy god names and historical references—frequently slows the movement of the action down to a stumbling trudge. Particularly confusing (for me) was the fact that early in the book, Blackmoore stopped referring to the death goddess as Santa Muerte and began using her ancient name, Mictecacihuatl, which—when you are skimming along at a fast clip—is easy to mistake for Mictlantecuhtli, her ex-husband’s name. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop and double-check the spelling in order to figure out who was speaking or acting out. Why not just keep calling her Santa Muerte to make it easier on the reader?

     I recommend that you do not read Hungry Ghosts until after you have read Dead Things and Broken Souls. Otherwise, you will not comprehend the meaning of the frequent references to characters and past events from the earlier books. Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Hungry Ghosts is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.

     This is a terrific urban fantasy/horror series set on the dark and dangerous streets of an alternate Los Angeles. In this grim and gritty world, mages, spirits, gods, and voodoo loas intermingle with the unknowing human populace.

     In the first novel, the hero—or anti-hero—is Joe Sunday, and he’s definitely not a nice guy. Joe is a mob enforcer—a cold-blooded killer who has done horrible things to both men and women: breaking legs and fingers, shooting out kneecaps, and even setting a man on fire. Early in book 1, Joe gets turned into a zombie, and his life changes forever.   Here, Joe goes on to explain how he feels about his new existence: “There’s that empty feeling, like I’ve been ripped open and hollowed out. I’m Pinocchio in reverse. The real boy turned into a wooden puppet.” (City of the Lost, p. 35)

     The hero of the second and third novels is Eric Carter, a necromancer who attracts ghosts: "Ghosts come to me like moths to a flame. I can see them and they can see me. They hover like groupies....If I really wanted to get rid of the ghosts I'd nail a dead cat to the windows, but that's always struck me as a bit extreme." (Dead Things, p. 12) Eric calls up various ghosts—including eye witnesses and even murder victims—to ask them pertinent questions about the crimes he investigates. In this world, ghosts who are earth-bound have died a traumatic death. Some are Wanderers, who can move from place to place, and some are Haunts, who are tethered to their place of death. Then there are the Echoes, constantly reliving the final moments of their lives, but all of these ghosts have one thing in common: They are hungry for the life-force of humans. Eric has spent much of his life avoiding ghostly attacks while bringing justice to the dead: "When they're dead and there's no one to speak for them, no one to collect on the debt their killers owe: that's where I come in. The Dead have already paid for their sins. The living, not so much." (Dead Things, p. 211) 

     Eric carries much of his magic in the form of full-body tattoos: "I'm tattooed over most of my body. Neck to wrists to ankles. Wards and sigils. Symbols in dead languages to help ward off threat, divert attention, help me focus my magic." (Dead Things, p. 13) 

     Eric fled from L.A. fifteen years ago after killing Jean Boudreau, the powerful mage mob boss who sent a fire elemental to murder his parents. After Eric got his revenge on Boudreau, the mage mob gave him a simple choice: either leave L.A. for good, or be responsible for the deaths of himself and his sister, Lucy. Eric chose to leave his sister behind (in promised safety) and to make a new life for himself—far away from L.A. Since then, he has developed stronger and stronger magical powers and has become an assassin for hire in the supernatural world. Even though he limits his killing to bad humans and evil supernaturals, his death-filled life has taken a toll on his soul.

                        NOVEL 1:  City of the Lost                         
    When Joe Sunday’s boss, Simon, sends him to retrieve a valuable gemstone from a former associate, Joe views it as an easy assignment. What he doesn’t realize is that Sandro Giavetti is not your average human gangster. Long story short, Joe is murdered and then brought back to life as a non-breathing, super-strong zombie who will "live" forever if he consumes a human heart every day to keep his body from rotting away. Here, Joe realizes what has happened to him: “My world drops out from under me. I tell myself that I don’t feel any different, only I do. My lungs, the missing aches and pains, my blown-out knee. I peel back one of the bandages on my sliced up hands. The cuts are gone. My body feels like somebody’s thrown the off switch but forgot to tell me about it.” The only thing that will save Joe from this horrific existence is to gain possession of Giavetti’s gemstone. He’ll never get his human life back, but if he has the stone, his body will remain “human.”

     Of course, Joe is not the only one who is after this extremely powerful stone with its power of immortality. As Joe follows the clues, he meets several weird and dangerous people—some of whom are out to get him and one who agrees to help him. The supporting characters include a cop on a mission of revenge, a Nazi doctor who shoots flame from his fingertips, a razor-toothed midget, a young bruja (aka witch), a bar-tending demon, and a beautiful immortal woman who can’t be trusted.  

     Joe tells his story in his own wry and profane voice, all street-tough on the outside and newly vulnerable inside. Blackmoore has created a terrific character in Joe. Even though he is a lowlife and a candidate for Death Row (if he ever got caught), the reader sympathizes with his deadly plight and roots for him to win in the end.

     Naturally enough, the book has numerous scenes of graphic, bloody violence and a multitude of f-bombs, but it also has moments of noir humor—sometimes unintended—that lighten things up, and lots of quirky characters (for example, Gabriela, the sexy, young bruja who commands a crew of foul-mouthed gangbangers, has a graduate degree in sociology, and focuses her energy on helping the city's homeless, drug-addicted vampires). This is a terrific kick-off to a new series that seems headed for major success in the urban fantasy market. Click HERE to read an excerpt from City of the Lost

                        NOVEL 2:  Dead Things                        
     The catalyst for the action is a phone call Eric Carter receives his old friend, Alex Kim, with the bad news that his sister, Lucy, has been horribly mutilated and murdered, probably by a magical being. When Eric heads back to L.A. and visits the crime scene, he discovers that the murderer left a message for him and that Lucy's death was just bait to lure Eric back to town. The story follows Eric as he reunites with Alex, comes to terms with a former lover (Dr. Vivian Winters, a mage), tangles with the mage who has taken over Boudreau's territory, and tries to figure out the murderer's identity and what the murderer wants from him. Along the way are many scenes in which Eric is beaten, shot, stabbed, and generally worked over mercilessly by various thugs, both human and supernatural. One of Eric's earliest and most promising clues comes from Santa Muerte (aka Mictecacihuatl, Aztec goddess of death), a powerful supernatural spirit who appears to him in the form of a skeletal female figure clad in a ragged wedding gown. She is determined to trade her information for access to Eric's powers. Eventually Santa Muerte maneuvers Eric into a situation in which he is forced to make a deal with her without understanding the exact terms of their agreement. By the end of the book, one of Eric’s friends has been killed, Vivian despises him, and he realizes that he is now tied to Santa Muerte through a seemingly unbreakable bond.

     Blackmoore has created an intricate plot with enough red herrings to make early identification of the murderer difficult, but not impossible. As Eric stumbles through his investigation, he has to rely on information from old friends and new acquaintances—both human and supernatural—and he can never be sure which ones—if any—he can trust. Blackmoore introduces each character and then adds layers of back story as the plot moves along, so we gradually learn more and more about the characters and their motives. The fast-paced action is compelling, as Eric gets beaten back each time he takes a step forward towards a final solution of the case. 

     Eric tells his story in the first person using the simple present tense ("I say," "I take a shower," "I walk around," "I get into the car"), which gets irritating at times, but carries the story forward in a brusque, no-nonsense manner that works well with the noir tone of the book. Eric is himself a noirish character, torn by his feelings of guilt for leaving his sister alone, regretting the loss of Vivian's love and trust, and fearing and despising his relationships with the capricious supernatural beings who hire him to do their dirty work. Although the character types and some plot elements will be familiar to readers of noir fiction, this is still a well-told story with complex characterization and a nicely constructed plot. 

     The ending is a cliffhanger of sorts for Eric, so I assume that we'll hear more of Eric's story in future books. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Dead Things.

                        NOVEL 3:  Broken Souls                        
     As the story opens, Eric is dealing with the fact that the Aztec death goddess, Santa Muerte, has bonded him to her by putting a wedding band on his ring finger—an unremovable ring that "changes from time to time. A simple gold band sometimes, tiny calaveras carved into its surface others. Tonight it's solid green jade…" Eric has been trying to get mage assistance with removing the ring and breaking the bond, but no one will help him. His reputation in Los Angeles is so bad that people tend to stay away from him. At one point, a reluctant ally tells him, "I've got enough trouble without you showing up again….Something tells me you're better at breaking things apart than you are at putting them back together again." 

     Finally, one mageHarvey Kettlemanagrees to meet him in the middle of the night at Griffith Observatory, but when Eric gets there, two strange things happen. First, he hears the voice of his dead friend, Alex, warning him of danger—just a disembodied voice in his head, no ghostly body or solid shape. Then, Kettleman attacks him with an ancient obsidian knife. As Eric desperately fights back, Kettleman inexplicably changes his shape, suddenly becoming a tall, blond, former L.A. mob enforcer named Sergei Gusarov. As it turns out, this violent, human thug can use the magic obsidian knife to steal the form, powers, and memories of each of his victims by killing them and wearing their skins like a suit. Although Eric wins the fight, he’s pretty sure that the Russian isn’t done with him.

     This incident sets up the plot, as Eric tries to figure out what the Russian is  up to and who—or what—the “Alex voice” is. That second question becomes even more difficult to answer when Alex begins showing up in his solid physical form, claiming to have information that will help Eric. Eric's situation gets even more complicated when Sergei's sister, Katya, follows Eric into a train car and kills everyone inside in an attempt to get at Eric. The action moves back and forth across the city as Eric has several ambiguous meetings with Santa Muerte, enlists assistance from his old friend Tabitha Cheung, and seeks information from the Santa Ana wind spirits. He also teams up with Gabriela, the young bruja from City of the Lost, who commands a crew of human and vampire thugs and who has also been attacked by the Sergei and his sister.

     After all is said and done, Eric kicks back in his hotel room to watch the news, only to discover that the day's most traumatic eventsan earthquake, an explosion, and a wind-related brushfirecan all be traced back to him. He muses, "It's a weird feeling, being responsible for so much of the news."

     In the end, Eric resolves his problem with the Russians in a scene that uses a plot device that is basically an all-too-quick-and-neat deus ex machina. He also learns who Alex really is, a major surprise that doesn’t feel as authentic as the rest of the story. This new plot twist brings in Aztec religious mythology and moves us away from the drama on the city streets that has made the rest of the series so darkly realistic. What Blackmoore has done is up the ante on the "fantasy" part of “urban fantasy” and downplay the “urban” part, a move that doesn’t work very well as far as I’m concerned. Part of the problem is that we can’t trust the conflicting stories that Santa Muerte and her long-dead lover spin out to Eric, each hoping for his support.

     The book ends with the Santa Muerte issue unresolved and Eric still alone, with only the obsidian knife to keep him company. Even Gabriela bails on him. When Eric tells her, "I'm doing just fine," this is her response: "Really? Bouncing from hotel to hotel, stealing cars, ex-girlfriend wants to kill you...Last I heard your best friend had his soul eaten and you had to shoot him in the head. Yeah, you're doing great on the friend front." 

     This is the weakest of the three books, mostly because of the lack of character development that was such a strong point in the earlier novels. The Russian story line turned into a series of all-too-similar mini-battles, except for the explosive climax, which felt rushed and overly fantastical. Vivian makes only a brief appearance with no real interaction with Eric, and Tabitha…well Tabitha turns out to be anything but what she appears to be. The next novel promises to be even more fantasy-oriented than this one, with Eric going after two gods as he fulfills his promise to the Santa Ana wind spirits and tries to break his bond with Santa Muerte once and for all. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Broken Souls.

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