Published 2009 339 pages
Summary (from the book jacket)
The world is not the way it was. The dead have risen, and the living are under attack. The powerful Church of Real Truth, in charge since the government fell, has sworn to reimburse citizens being harassed by the deceased.
Enter Chess Putnam, a fully-tattooed witch, freewheeling ghost hunter. She's got a real talent for banishing the wicked dead. But Chess is keeping a dark secret: she owes a lot of money to a murderous drug lord named Bump who wants immediate payback in the form of a dangerous job that involves black magic, human sacrifice, a nefarious demonic creature, and enough wicked energy to wipe out a city of souls. Toss in lust for a rival gang leader and a dangerous attraction to Bump's ruthless enforcer, and Chess begins to wonder if the rush is really worth it. Hell, yeah.
Unholy Ghosts is the first novel in Stacia Kane’s gritty Downside Ghosts urban fantasy series. Stacia Kane is an established urban fantasy author, with the Megan Chase series already under her belt. The Megan Chase books are fairly light-hearted stories about a psychic counsellor who can slay personal demons. By contrast Unholy Ghosts is a much darker offering.
At this point in the review I have to confess that there are no vampires in Unholy Ghosts – just ghosts, magic users and scary spirit entities. The book is set in a world where the dead rose from their graves en masse in 1997. While they came back as ghosts, not zombies, they were still angry and murderous and in a week of chaos killed half the living population of the planet before being banished back to the underworld by the Church. The Church is not a religious organisation. It is actually the complete opposite. When organised religions couldn’t banish the ghosts general populace turned to a small group of magic practitioners who could – and as a result this group gained the power to usurp the positions of both government and religion. Now (ironically) called the Church they actually preach the Truth, that there are no gods – only magic, which in turn is just the manipulation of energy. Their power is absolute and punishment for not following their dictates harsh.
The story is told in third person from the POV of Chess Putnam, the book’s ghost hunting protagonist. Chess is an employee of the Church but a more unlikely candidate for employee-of-the-month would be hard to find. Chess has a nasty drug habit, and while she’s a functioning addict (rather than a hopeless shivering mess) her drug habit is an overwhelming presence for the entire story. The story doesn’t glorify the use of drugs and in no way could anyone reading this story come away with the impression that drugs are cool. Chess’s addiction leaves her open to manipulation and makes her takes risks that other, more sensible character types would not. Her love for danger and dangerous situations is acknowledged in the story, even Chess herself recognises that her behaviour is self-destructive but is unable or unwilling to change it. She is a deeply damaged character but to me this only made her more interesting and, strangely enough, more believable for an urban fantasy heroine.
You see the problem with a lot of urban fantasy heroines is that they often behave like complete twits – rushing in to situations where angels would fear to tread without a second thought. To my way of thinking, Chess Putnam actually has a valid reason for some of the messy situations that she gets herself into – and having a heroine whose judgement is impaired by drugs makes a refreshing change from the usual UF heroines whose judgment is impaired by overwhelming arrogance and the gratuitous wearing of leather pants.
Downside is a dirty, brutal place – a ghetto filled with broken people who can barely speak English. In fact my only gripe with Unholy Ghosts is the patois that Kane devises for her ghetto dwellers. It’s jarring when half the dialogue in the book is perfectly understandable English and the other half isn’t. Even Doyle, one of Chess’s co-workers complains to her about the people she hangs out with, calling them “crazy people who talk like they’ve never heard a proper word spoken in their lives”. I couldn’t have agreed with him more…
Still this setting gives the Unholy Ghosts a razor-sharp edge while the plotline gives readers plenty of opportunities to witness bloody horror. The mystery part of the plotline subtly avoids the obvious and just when you’re convinced you know what’s going on and who-dun-it – pulls a sneaky twist in another direction.
All-in-all Unholy Ghosts is the most original and exciting debut to an urban fantasy series that I’ve read in a long while. Just when I was thinking I’d read all that the UF genre had to offer, I couldn’t be more pleased to be proved wrong! Eagerly, no impatiently, waiting to get my hands on Unholy Magic the next book in the series – I highly recommend Unholy Ghosts to readers who like their urban fantasy with a dark edge.
Unholy Ghosts is rated down half a star for the lack of vampires (it’s a site rule, sorry!) and down another half point for the annoying patios used for half the dialogue, giving it a four star review – but it’s a really strong four stars…
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