Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Magical Mayhem in Boston

They--whoever “they” are, of course--say that change is good. I remain highly skeptical about such sweeping statements, but when it comes to books, at least, change can definitely be a pretty good thing. Reading the same hackneyed dialogue, spoken by yet more of the same tired characters in the middle of a been-there-done-that-already plot yet again, gets old really fast--and we’ve all experienced it, and been disappointed by it. So, when new author Margaret Ronald’s Spiral Hunt came along, providing me with a genuine change of pace, I have to say it was a welcome surprise. That’s not to say it was a perfect fit, though; I was really frustrated with the story before it became enticing, interesting, unique, and worth all the effort. (It’s absolutely vital to mention the “effort” involved; it took me more than a few chapters to really get into the story, the world, and the characters... not because I didn’t understand things, just that it took me some time to actually care.)
SH is set in Boston (a cool and still relatively under-used locale), in a world in which magic exists--although only a few people are aware of that fact. It follows the exploits of Genevieve “Evie” Scelan, a young woman known to only a small group of people as “Hound” (for her tracking abilities, as the nickname suggests). In the phonebook, her part-time business is listed under the heading “Finder”, which aptly describes the service she provides--she finds things. (Not that her clients have the foggiest notion just how she finds stuff--literally, with her sense of smell. It’s enough to most people simply that she gets results... which is just the way Evie wants it.) To those in the know, however, her ability is a rare form of magic, which makes her a potential target from some real nasties who don’t like independent magic users practicing in their territory. (Think magical mafia, headed by a powerful and fierce don, with competing magic factions or gangs, and you’ve got the gist of it.)
What SH doesn’t depict, thankfully, is a world populated by anything resembling vampires, traditional shapeshifters, etc. (Much as I love such creations, I’d been craving something unexpected.) Instead, it's magic all-the-time, and the forms of magic here are either part of one’s natural-born abilities (such as Evie’s use of scent), or can be made manifest only after years of study and practice (such as casting spells, creating wards, and the like). The fact that there are none of the typical supernatural creatures (so popular in the genre right now) makes for a nice change of pace, because the magic seems a little more realistic, as though it could almost happen anywhere, today.
Evie, who hasn’t ever really taken “sides” among the magic-users--and who, in fact, grew up making promises to her now-dead mother that she wouldn’t practice magic or show off her talent, ever--is surrounded by both “adepts” (active practitioners of magic) and regular folks. She knows just enough about the more serious magic to be very wary, and she avoids most adepts. In her world, even the smallest parts of someone--a bit of blood, a few hairs--can be used to harm or influence that person (like voodoo). Those same tiny pieces can also be used to form a locus (kind of grounding the magic-user to a place and making the magic more effective). It’s even possible to use someone’s own name against him or her. This is a scary place, indeed... for those who know the score.
Several events, big and small, conspire to land Evie in a tangled, magical mess. It all starts with an out-of-the-blue phone call from an old high-school boyfriend (himself, a magical dude, and someone Evie had believed long-dead). Then, there’s the meeting of a mysterious, shockingly-powerful stranger while she's trying to follow her ex’s trail--a stranger to whom she finds herself oddly attracted. Taking on a hunting case for a good friend (the owner of a magic supply shop), to scent out some curious magic stones. Helping out a detective friend who has a bizarrely-marked dead body on her hands. Tracking down an elderly--and less-than-enthusiastic--cop, who had a couple of similar cases twenty years ago, to his nursing-home digs. Enduring some very strange and scary bad dreams, which slowly invade Evie’s waking hours, as well. Being threatened and accosted. (Note: There are NO rapes and NO instances of sexual violence in this book, which is a welcome relief.) Trying to rescue kidnapped friends. Celtic symbols and some fascinating Irish lore. (And yes, being Boston, there’s always at least a hint of baseball, if only in the background. ;)) As Evie delves further and further into the unknown, it becomes clear that she'll be taking on that magical mafia she’s tried so hard to mostly steer clear of for the past dozen or so years.
After finally working out most of the whos and the whats (and some of the whys and hows), I found myself getting more and more immersed in the story. It took longer than normal, though--especially for something that I ended up really liking. For one thing, there isn't an instantaneous emotional connection with Evie. It’s not that she’s unlikable or anything, but more that she’s distant and serious. (There isn’t a great deal of humor in SH, either, if that matters to anyone.) The relationships are slow to build, as well--and by that, I mean any and all relationships. (Now is probably a good time to point out that this is very definitely UF; don’t expect a happily-ever-after type ending or “hawt menz”; this isn’t remotely that sort of book.) What it is, though, is an exciting, scary, and unsettling ride (once it finally gets going, anyway), sort of a paranormal mystery/thriller. I suspect that the next book in the series, Wild Hunt, will be even better, since it will be able to jump right into the next part of Evie’s story without spending so much time setting up the world.
GlamKitty rating: 3.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Zombie Battle at the Greasy Spoon

I don't think I'm that strange. (Okay, yes, I'm a bit odd, but not about this. :P Geez, stay with me, here...) Sometimes I just want or need to take a break from headier fare--from mammoth epics, or complex, multi-layered dramas, or highly-emotional pieces--any of which can potentially wring me out and leave me exhausted. After those types of intense books, a light bit of frippery, a fun little lark, can be just the ticket. A. Lee Martinez's Gil's All Fright Diner is that kind of book.
GAFD definitely falls under the category of "guilty" reading pleasures (although at the end, I don't feel a bit guilty ;)). The easiest way to describe Martinez is basically a supernatural Carl Hiaasen; as such, there's plenty of wacky, paranormal fun involved in this book. The basic formula of GAFD is that of a "road movie" (so, "road book?"), as we follow the exploits of a pair of buddies, who just happen to be a vampire and a werewolf. (Yes. They really are. Best friends, the male Thelma-&-Louise--complete with pickup--only... not so sexy or appealing, shall we say.) In the best "pulp" style, though, these fellas aren't quite what we've come to expect from our stereotypical "monsters"... scrawny, uncoordinated Earl (the "Earl of Vampires") is anything but a ladykiller, although he does have a little luck with them, as well as possessing some supernatural strength; and Duke (the "Duke of Werewolves", of course ;)) is a huge, grossly-overweight, less-than-fit-fighting-machine of a man, whose unkempt appearance and uncouth mannerisms belie an intelligent and practical mind and generous nature. 
The pair travel around in an old pickup truck (with Earl's steamer trunk-cum-daytime-snooze-o-rama in the bed of the truck), just driving wherever the road takes them... or in this case, wherever their dwindling funds, gas gauge hovering on "E", and Duke's rumbling tummy lead them to stop for a bit--aka Gil's All-Night Diner, a broken-down joint in the middle of the desert (so, in the middle of nowhere). What should have otherwise been a very ordinary experience, as Duke tries to choke down some greasy grub served by the diner's big, blowsy, bosomy proprietress, suddenly takes a turn into something quite extraordinary... when a group of zombies attack the lonely diner. Even more strange, this isn't a shocking, out-of-the-blue event, but something that, as it turns out, the townspeople (and I use the term "town" pretty darn loosely, here) have come to expect and even take in stride. It's not just zombies, either. They have at least one witch, multiple ghosts, ghouls, imps, and much more. (Even a ghost Schnauzer. :)) In the best tradition of the anti-hero, Duke and Earl decide it's up to them to "fix" things, to rid the townspeople of the weird stuff that's been going on.
There are some nice little touches that I wasn't expecting, in the middle of all the flashy spectacle. (Lots of smelly stuff and all sorts of goo involved when fighting the Forces of Evil, you know.) Earl finds a girlfriend and falls in love (in what is a surprisingly-sweet relationship). Meanwhile, Duke seriously thinks about who he is (man? beast?), and about the possible ramifications of his entering into a relationship with one of a couple of different females. A hormonally-charged pair of high-schoolers show just what life is like in such an out-of-the-way place for bored kids with too much time and personal freedom on their hands. (And yay! For once, the cops are neither bad nor stupid. Another tired stereotype busted. Sweet!)
Did I know that everything would--more or less-- work out in the end? Um, yeah. (But really, we know that with most books, don't we?) Just as we go to adventure movies for the excitement and the fun, that's the real allure of GAFD. It may not be capable of producing a fine-dining experience, but it does a pretty respectable job giving us one heckuva fun little ride. And sometimes, that's just about perfect. :)
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)