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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Crime and Magic Under Cover of Midnight

First impressions can be misleading. Take, for instance, author Kelly Gay's series starring Atlanta detective Charlie Madigan. If you only glanced at the covers, you might think the set-up sounded pretty derivative.

I mean seriously, don't many of us have to admit to more than a passing familiarity with all things supernatural (in this case, jinn, ghouls, nymphs, sirens, and even a dragon), and with characters who conduct some sort of witchcraft or produce magical results (witches, mages, various healers, and the like, here)? Haven't we run across more than one of these fate-of-the-world, impending-mega-doom-and-destruction scenarios? Doesn't seeing Atlanta, Georgia function as the backdrop for all of this magic-making and mayhem ring a bell? And, haven't we read umpteen cop "buddy" stories--a great number of which involve a pair of opposite-sex partners (who may or may not have some chemistry together)--and watched them solve crimes and put away bad guys?

Wait... what? 

See, that's the thing. Gay's "Dark" books (starting with 2009's The Better Part of Darkness, and continuing with the recently-released The Darkest Edge of Dawn) might contain some elements we've seen before, but it's what she does with them--mixing conventions from multiple genres together and creating a new and imaginative world--which sets her work apart as something a little bit different.

For instance, she tweaks things by giving her stories an intergalactic dynamic (and, although I worried at first that it would be hard to keep track of three different races--the regular humans plus the off-world Charybdons and Elysians--that wasn't a problem). Her end result is a cool hybrid; it actually feels considerably more like a traditional police procedural/ thriller, full of gritty urban realism--with a little sci-fi thrown in (via the visitors-from-other-worlds)--than it does a run-of-the-mill urban fantasy story (aside from the supernatural elements I mentioned earlier). The bottom line is that I am really digging her mash-up.

[By the way, if you haven't read The Better Part of Darkness yet, check out my review on it here, first, because spoilers from the first book follow.]

When last we saw Charlie, she was definitely a little worse for the wear. Sure, she managed to defeat the high-and-mighty Charybdon noble/evil madman, Mynogan--the man solely responsible for bringing the highly-addictive-to-humans drug ash to Earth--when she foiled all of his carefully-laid plans to seize control of our world by putting everyone into an ash-induced stupor. She also succeeded in rescuing her pre-teen daughter Emma from Mynogan's evil clutches without any harm befalling Emma. The cost to Charlie, for these heroics? Just some assorted bumps and bruises from a few knock-down, drag-out brawls... plus the chance to spend some nice quality time alongside Myongan, sharing space in his mind. Unsurprisingly, the result of that last (near-death) bit of fun was an altered Charlie, a person who knew herself not only in some metaphysical way, but who'd also gained a new understanding of her ancestry... of who and what she really was.

Of course, Charlie wasn't the only one who emerged from the chaos changed. Her younger sister Bryn became hooked on ash after being exposed to it during the rescue attempt. Charlie's ex-husband Will, guilty of practicing dark magic in secret, wound up in big enough trouble to necessitate cutting a deal with the devil--that his dying body would remain alive, while his mind was taken over by a spirit (named Max) who happened to be in need of a host body. Even the city of Atlanta itself suffered, when Mynogan put it into a state of perpetual darkness prior to his demise--a nice little parting gift, if you will. So, a couple of major victories, and a lot of residual damage.

The Darkest Edge of Dawn picks up the story two months later. Charlie is still healing, and she's been training with her nymph mentor and co-worker, Aaron, to learn how to use her newly-acquired powers. (Remember the ancestry and bloodline bit? The powers she gained after the little mind-meld with Mynogan have to do with that.) Bryn is still an ash addict, and will be one until somebody figures out a cure; the value of ash as a weapon is that if the addict stops taking it, he/she will die, period. On the homefront, Charlie has been letting Max stay in her house, but it's not easy living with someone who looks/sounds/smells just like her ex-husband... but isn't him, any longer. Plus, she managed to acquire an illegal hellhound after that last adventure, and he's staying in a doghouse out back (when Emma isn't sneaking him into the house to sleep in her bedroom, that is). Charlie's plate is full.

People don't suddenly stop committing crimes, though, so Charlie and her partner, Hank the siren, are no less busy at work, and their newest case? It's shaping up to be a doozy.

It seems that several of the Adonai--the most powerful class of the Elysians--have recently gone missing, without a trace. Searches thus far have proven fruitless. When a tip leads Charlie and Hank to an abandoned warehouse, they make a gruesome discovery: the bodies of all the missing Adonai, tossed into a big pile on the floor of the otherwise vacant building. A little hocus-pocus by their medical examiner (who also has certain "special" abilities), and the most-recently-deceased Elysian is revived, just long enough for the detectives to see if they can glean any clues about her last minutes alive. What they learn from her isn't much, but it's enough to worry them; the only beings with enough power to brutally murder that many of the mightiest Elysians are the strongest of the Charybdons, the nobles--and if that little tidbit were to leak out, it would almost certainly lead to war, which is something Charlie and Hank wish very much to avoid.

With that in mind, they set about learning as much as possible about the last victim. They find connections to the jinn, who are the Charybdon warriors, which means a visit to the Underground lair of Charlie's arch nemesis, Grigori Tennin, leader of the jinn. (Think Tony Soprano and all his henchmen at their nastiest--only imagine them with dark grey skin, being incredibly strong and buff, rather than pasty and overweight --and you get the picture.) Charlie starts having weird visions and dreams, seeing writing crawling underneath her skin and picturing things that haven't happened... but which seem all too real.

Going home at night isn't much better, because there Charlie is just assaulted by problems of a different sort. Emma has a mind of her own... and maybe some brand-new powers, which she's been hiding from her mother. Rex is impossible to live with... and that's before Charlie gets a bill from a debt collector for more than $20,000 Rex owes, past due, payable to the jinn leader. Bryn is miserable, neglecting both herself and her work under the influence of the drug. And Hank is... well, Hank is different, too, in ways Charlie finds herself completely unprepared to handle. [Gay's writing is very strong when depicting the relationships between her characters; they have intelligent, interesting dialogues (and inner monologues, in Charlie's case), and their reactions ring true.]

As racial tensions escalate, Charlie finds herself in the middle of all the bad stuff once more, and against nearly insurmountable odds, she and Hank prepare to make one last, glorious stand. (No pressure; it's only the fate of Atlanta, and perhaps all of Earth, hanging in the balance.) It's as exciting and visual a confrontation as anyone could hope for, playing out like a fantastic scene in a really good action movie.

Obviously, it isn't exactly spoiling anything to say that the good guys are victorious... but only partially so, with plenty of things left unresolved, to be dealt with in future books. (Don't worry, though; there isn't a big cliffhanger at the end, if that kind of thing chafes your backside.) The characters' personal lives are likewise in a state of flux, with many different paths they may or may not choose to follow. I'm not sure what choices they'll make--or where author Gay is leading them--but I've reserved my seat for the full journey.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies
 




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