Unholy Ghosts (Downside Ghosts #1)
May 25, 2010
From the author’s site:
THE AFTERLIFE IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.
The world is not the way it was. The dead have risen and constantly attack the living. The powerful Church of Real Truth, in charge since the government fell, has sworn to reimburse citizens being harassed by the deceased. Consequently, there are many false claims of hauntings from those hoping to profit. Enter Chess Putnam, a fully-tattooed witch and freewheeling Debunker and ghost hunter. She’s got a real talent for nailing the human liars or banishing the wicked dead. But she’s keeping a dark secret from the Church: a little drug problem that’s landed her in hot and dangerous water.
Chess owes a murderous drug lord named Bump a lot of money. And Bump wants immediate payback. All Chess has to do is dispatch a very nasty species of undead from an old airport. But the job involves black magic, human sacrifice, a nefarious demonic creature, and crossing swords with enough wicked energy to wipe out a city of souls. Toss in lust with 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.
Books With Balls is a special reviewing segment here at Lurv where an author goes where no other author can, meaning this author’s style is unique. It’s a book with balls. Big meaty ones.
Number of Balls (scale of 1-5, 5 being best): 5
Why is this book ballsy?
1. Quite frankly, its because the heroine is a unrepentant drug addict. Because of this aspect, and how it’s portrayed, the author takes a big risk and really puts herself out there. I think this alone, whether or not one likes how it all plays out, is pretty darn cool.
I’ve been wanting to read a Stacia Kane book since I added Personal Demons to my TBR. The reason I haven’t read that one yet is because my TBR pile growls at me every time I get near it. It’s like Kane’s book is its precious or something.
So I was psyched when I learned that I won one of few ARC copies of this one over at Goodreads. As much as I liked some aspects of the book – or, rather, grew to like them – there were other parts I didn’t particularly care for. Sounds like the usual, really.
To start us off, I can say with all honesty that this is a very unique urban fantasy. The author has been bold in her risks with the series opener. I think some of these will pay off, and some might not. There’s an almost equal hold for each camp.
Cesaria, or Chess as she’s commonly known as, is a Debunker/witch for the Church of Real Truth, the one, all-encompassing power after an Apocalyptic-style supernatural disaster wipes out a good bit of humanity. Ghosts had risen and attacked the living, leaving humanity in the lurch and looking to someone to save them. Only through the new Church’s Truth, magic and teachings could people be safe. They forcibly retain these dangerous ghosts in a place called The City, and they’re only let out once a year for a Festival in which the living are protected via instructions from the Church. It’s a very safe, controlled way to allow the ghosts to let off steam, so to speak. A Debunker’s job is to either prove or disprove claims that ghosts are haunting a residence, business, etc.
Chess is in way over her head lately as she owes a lot of money to a major drug dealer named Bump. Together with his enforcer, Terrible (yes, the names took a little getting used to), Chess must use her magical powers as a Debunker to prove that an airfield the drug dealer wants to use isn’t inhabited by ghosts. What Chess finds there though is potentially the start of the most-feared scenario since ghosts began attacking the living.
Unholy Ghosts is without a doubt a very unique, bold and well-done book. There are drawbacks as well, but let’s discuss what was good.
I was impressed with the writing. At first the heavy, uneducated dialect that the people from Downside (the neighborhood Chess lives in, run by the drug dealer Bump, and which reminded me a lot of the hooker’s neighborhood in the movie Sin City) use was very off putting. It took me quite a few chapters to be able to get the hang of the meanings of their slang. While I wish that the speech of these Downsiders had differentiated more (they all sounded exactly alike and this made it hard to care about character growth), I did eventually begin to get the hang of it and it does lend itself well to building the world.
I didn’t think at first that I would like the portrayal of the Church as a ruling entity. When you think about it, it’s really no different than something like what Hitler did with the Nazis. In a moment of supreme weakness and horrendous disaster to mankind, one entity rose up, squashed the evil threatening them and was looked on with much gratefulness from just about all of the public. The Church proves itself a hypocrite with everything they utter. Yes, they keep the public safe from ghosts, they teach people the magic necessary to keep everyone safe, but they’ve taken away the freedom to choose religion, etc. And Chess, somewhat surprisingly, subscribes wholeheartedly to the Church’s doctrine. And maybe not surprising at all when one considers her bad childhood. Not only did the Church save her from ghosts, but they saved her from everyone who had ever hurt her. OR did they? It’s all very twisted when you consider that Chess is such a big drug addict. Her drug use is obviously overlooked by her peers and bosses (although her one night stand with a fellow Debunker is the source of much malicious gossip – very odd and, again, hypocritical).
Plus Kane can just plain tell a good story. I thought the idea of ghosts as the urban fantasy villain du jour was great. Kind of takes us back to the roots of supernatural fiction. They, of course, aren’t the only villainous beings in the book, and the ones organizing all the evil, the creature called the Dreamthief that Chess encounters, they were all excellently drawn. One of my biggest pet peeves is when the villains just seem to be there to serve as part of the background. Not so these. All the Evil Bad Guys were indeed sickeningly evil. There’s plenty of evil int he book, too, and while I felt some of the aspects bordered on horror, creating much more of a dark fantasy feel, I appreciated that the author really goes there in this book. Because if you say you’re gonna, then by gosh, bring it. That being said, I can honestly say my stomach turned more than once.
For all you fans of romance in your urban fantasy, there is a love triangle between Chess, Terrible, and the rival gang’s main enforcer named Lex. Despite their day jobs, I grew to like both men and enjoyed the aspect of romance they brought to the book. I kind of had to shake my head at myself for this at the same time, given what these guys do for a living. It calls into question what it is I pull for when I look for characters to like in UF books. I normally want my heroes and heroines to have redeeming traits, but there isn’t really that much that is redeeming about Chess or her love interests, except perhaps their determination to see their individual jobs done and the fact that both men are there for Chess in some dire scenarios. Despite this, at the end of the day, Chess isn’t saving the day because she’s worried about the rest of the world. She does it because of how her own life ties into the evil happening, and the men she’s involved with are pretty much going to make are their jobs are squared away as well, looking out in essence for their own interests. It’s disconcerting that I can’t perfectly nail it down, but I both enjoyed and felt turned off by this.
There is an aspect of the book that became a turn off and I admit to feeling apprehensive that it would. The author herself has talked about this on her blog, so I don’t feel it ventures into spoiler territory to say that Chess’ drug use did get bothersome for me. At first, I could sympathize with her. She’s had a terrible childhood. While I don’t condone drug use based on that fact, I’ve never been in those shoes. I’ll just say that who knows what people would do to escape the kinds of horrors that Chess endured as a child. You will become familiar enough with what those were.
The reason I had a problem with the drug use eventually was that it’s used more than once as a life-saving means for the heroine and others. As in, we’re not going to survive this unless we get high. Bump’s own squad of goons is described at one point as being high and loyal. Um, well, I admit I rolled my eyes. I did. It was involuntary. I may have even muttered an are you serious at the book. I can’t say much more as this would indeed venture into spoiler territory, but suffice to say Chess has her reasons for using drugs to save lives, but by then I’d already begun to question why the amount of drugs she does doesn’t impair her more. Honestly, I’m no drug expert. Does speed (called Cepts in the book) make you uber clarified in terms of what’s going on around you? And if so, is that a good enough reason to portray drug use in a good light? Whatever the real-life case is with the drugs Chess was using, I just did not buy that 1. drug use saves lives, and 2. it didn’t have had a worse effect on Chess other than the obvious addiction. Because she is constantly getting high, and encourages others to get high as well.
This leads me to a bit of a think about why I read urban fantasy. Like many, I truly like a heroine or hero that has flaws. I don’t think I’ve ever met one quite as flawed as Chess, though. And I don’t see her drug use curtailing as the series progresses. It’s an addiction that, in her own words, she shoulders willingly, eagerly. I think if it hadn’t gone into the realm of drugs actually saving lives, I might have been able to continue to roll with the basic premise of a heroine as a drug addict. I’m not sure I can roll with it in the next book, but only time will tell there.
Unholy Ghosts is to be commended for the risks it takes, while at the same time deserving of being held in check for them. I honestly think some will be turned off while others will eagerly embrace a book that does take risks like this. As for me, I honestly struggled with how to rate it. On one hand, I’m glad to have read it and experienced a truly unique urban fantasy. On the other hand, I wish things hadn’t gone down as they did with the OK-ing of the drug use within the context of the story. By the end, I felt somewhat OK about it all as a whole, but not as moved as I’d like to have been. Perhaps the second book will up the ante for me personally and I hope to give it a shot when the time comes.