Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Another paranormal mystery, maybe a romance. Yawn.
That’s the sound of me being wrong once again. This is a great book, and I enjoyed it a lot.
It is either an alternate present or else the very-near future. Magic has come back with a vengeance, and is competing with physics as we know it for control of the world. Thus, sometimes magic’s “up” and your car won’t work; other times tech rules and your wards stop working (but your burglar alarm will). Kate Daniels is a mercenary; when people have magical trouble they turn to the Mercenary Guild, and if the Guild thinks Kate is the right person for the job, they send her. It allows her independence, but it also means she doesn’t get a regular paycheque. She’s a tough outsider, so she thinks the tradeoff is worthwhile.
Kate works out of Atlanta. She’s sitting in her kitchen at the start of the book when a tech phase starts: the TV comes on and her wards go down. And a vampire enters her house (more on the vampires in a bit) and asks her when she last talked to her Guardian. Kate is an orphan; her Guardian is Greg Feldman, the Knight-Diviner of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, the third part of the official law enforcement paranormal forces, alongside the police and the army. The Order are good people, but Kate has turned down several invitations to join them because she doesn’t deal well with authority. Most of those offers came through Greg, who raised her after her parents died. Wondering why the vampire is asking her this, she calls Greg up, only to find that he is dead. Killed in the line of duty. The Order is investigating, and Kate wants in; she is surprised when they let her, but assumes she is a stalking horse. She’s okay with that.
Her investigation leads her to believe that someone named Corwin might be responsible, and that Corwin is associated with the Pack, Atlanta’s shapeshifter . . . what would you call an aggregate of shapeshifters? Union? Organization? They just seem wrong. Anyway, this involves meeting with the Beast Lord, the leader of the Pack, who is simultaneously the most sympatico person Kate has met in a long time, and also a powerful authority figure she absolutely cannot get along with. You’re probably picturing them falling into bed by the end of the book. I’ll spoil things just enough to say that you’re wrong. This book is unique among paranormals in my experience in that it contains absolutely no romance. Oh, someone tries, but it . . . well, let’s say it doesn’t work out.
It turns out that what is going on is something very dark indeed, something that is a threat to the Pack and the vampires. Members of both groups have been killed in such a way as to make them suspect each other. Also, Kate finds mention in Greg’s notes of four women who have mysteriously gone missing. And a precognitive friend calls her up and reports that whatever’s going on is a threat to Kate herself . . . .
And now, in the “awkward segue” dept., let’s talk about those vampires. Andrews’ vampires aren’t pale, romantic Roumanian noblemen; in fact, they barely count as human. They are mindless, animalistic creatures, mostlly quadrupedal, who climb all over any surface (my mental image of the vampires in action rather resembles those crawling ghosts from J-horror films). What makes them dangerous is “The People”, a group of necromancers who telepathically control them and use them to spy on people and, as at the start of the book, convey messages. There is a side-effect to this process, though, as exemplified by the vampire that was killed at the same time as Greg: its head was torn off and its pilot, whose brain is now convinced that his head was torn off, is now catatonic.
Here is Kate’s description of an encounter with an old, old vampire:
The thing followed me on all fours. It was a vampire, but one so ancient that no trace of it having walked upright remained. The bones of its spine and hips had permanently shifted to adapt to quadruped locomotion.
The creature advanced, lean and wiry like a greyhound. An inch-high bone crest shielded its spine, formed by out-growth of the vertebrae through the leather-thick skin. It paused, hugged the ground for a moment, and rose again, ruby-red eyes fixed on me.
Its face no longer bore any resemblance to a human. The skull jutted back in a boney hornlike curve to balance the horribly massive protruding jaws. The creature had no nose, not even a hint of the nose bridge. It opened its mouth, splitting its head in half. Rows of fangs gleamed against the blackness.
So, overall, this is a fun book with a strong, female hero, and a unique approach to the traditional monsters. It is, of course, highly recommended, but that recommendation comes with a caveat: a big part of the story deals with sexual assault. NOT of our hero, and not in detail, but it’s there and those who find that sort of thing triggering should be aware of it.
Unshapely Things by Mark del Franco
Connor Grey is an ex-druid in a world in which Faerie came back in around 1900 and the Good People, in all their varieties, live amongst us again. Connor was crippled by a magical accident, and now can’t work the big spells that made him a hotshot investigator in the Ward Guild. Instead, he gets by on his disability cheques and what he can get from the Police for helping them investgate crimes the Guild doesn’t worry about — such as a series of murders of Fairy prostitutes in Boston’s low-rent paranormal neighbourhood, the Weird. They have their chests hacked open and their hearts replaced with a small stone. Creepy and ritualistic, sure, but nothing big, right? Nah, you know better than that. Politics and the Guild soon become involved, but not necessarily on the right side of the case. Conor may be in over his head.
This one has a lot to recommend it: good writing, an interesting hero, an interesting approach to the old folklore, which is overall represented accurately (including an awareness of the difference between elves and the Sidhe), and a nice noir sensibility. The main thing that bugged me is that this is another of those worlds where everyone who works magic is by default not quite human: even Connor. Druid is more than a career path. That sort of thing annoys me, for some reason. But other than that, this is recommended.