Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: Unholy Ghosts - Stacia Kane

Downside Ghosts Book 1

Imagine a world without gods. There is no god. There is only the Fact and the Truth of the Church of the Real Truth – an organization that has ruled the world absolutely since they were able to stop the murderous ghosts from killing all of humanity. Chess Putnam is a Debunker for the Church; she travels around disproving citizens made-up claims of hauntings, or banishing the ghosts if they’re real.

Chess has a secret though – a big drug problem which has gotten her in deep with her dealer, Bump. And now he’s calling in his debt. All she has to do is banish some nasty ghosts from an abandoned airstrip for him and they’ll be settled straight up. Simple.

Or maybe not. Because what Chess thinks will be a simple debunking soon becomes mired in black magic, human sacrifice, corruption within the Church, attraction to Bump’s top enforcer, and a sexy rival drug lord vying for Chess’ loyalty and time. Will Chess be able to banish the demonic ghost, protect the Church that she loves, keep her balance between two sexy men and not reveal her addiction?

I’m going to start off with some background. I probably normally wouldn’t have reviewed this book, but because of some discussions I thought I should at least try to organize my thoughts on it.

I first heard about this book on Karen Marie Moning’s blog. She doesn’t often recommend novels, and my respect for her craft is huge. It got me interested and I put it on my To Be Bought list. Then I read the review at Dear Author and, admittedly, the conversation on the review intrigued me more. I wasn’t so sure about the main protagonist being a drug addict that had little to no growth. It’s not the addiction itself; trials really do make you stronger. Rather, it was the idea of a protagonist with no character depth or anything I could connect with – that’s what I worried about. I have to admit that if I had bought it prior to learning about the drug use I most likely would not have made it past halfway through the book. I don’t usually read reviews of books that I plan to read, but for this one I’m glad I made the exception. I have gone to look since and seen that the ‘drug problem’ is referenced in the blurb and on Amazon, but I’d missed that before.

I guess I’m going to just get the drug thing out of the way. I didn’t like it. I see drug use, the way it was portrayed in Unholy Ghosts, as a weakness. While I like characters that are not perfect, making them more like the rest of us I like to see something along with it, additional depth. Chess can’t function without her drugs. In the beginning chapter she starts getting the shakes until she can swallow her ‘Cepts’ and get that sweet relief flowing through her system. This continues throughout the book, and not just with that single drug but many different drugs.

And just what are Cepts? At one time in the book they’re referred back to as speed, but at other times it seems like they’re something different. Perhaps I misunderstood in my reading, but often she referred to letting up off the speed and yet the drug I saw her take most was the Cepts. Not a huge point, but it’s been bugging me with the confusion.

Not only can Chess not function without the drugs, everything she does is to gain more drugs. She agrees to Bump’s deal so that she can continue to get drugs. She agrees, by lack of response and a sort of physical arrangement, to help a rival drug lord in order to get free drugs. She continues to work for the Church, hoping to get a case she can debunk and thus get a bonus so she can spend a few days in the smoke room. Okay, truth be told, Chess truly believes in the Church. She follows them (mostly) and believes in them….almost blindly.

Honestly, the drug use wasn’t what bugged me most. I didn’t like it, but I do look forward to seeing growth – even if I haven’t seen any in that particular area at this point in time.

I felt no sense of empathy, or compassion on Chess' part. No real sense of right and wrong. She loves the Church, which she feels saved her. She’s loyal to it. And yet she disregards the very base of one of their tenets – which is that she is to represent all that is right and holy in the world. Clearly the drugs she has to hide from the Church would go head-on against that. To me that’s a conflict that’s never really examined or thought about. She goes so far as to asking another character to clean her apartment of them if she should die, before the Church gets there. Moral ambiguity can be interesting, but I don’t feel that this was fleshed out enough. Granted it is the first book in the series of three planned (at this time) so perhaps it will be better explored later.

I did see a very little bit of growth as a character comes to mean something to Chess, she cares about him and his safety, but it seems almost an after thought. And it doesn’t stop her from doing what she wants to do – which is to run off to get high. I see most of her relationships by the end of the book to be mostly measured in this light – what they can do for her.

My biggest problem with Chess is the lack of growth and depth added to the lack of explanation for why she is the way she is and does what she does. If I could have had some understanding of why she chooses drugs, or why she chooses to have no close connections with other people, then maybe I could have empathized myself with her. But she gave me nothing to work with. Chess came across as an unrepentant drug addict that had no real care for anything other than what she needed and wanted. Whatever that happened to be at the moment.

Onto the good stuff.

I didn’t hate Chess – despite what you may think from the above. I think there’s a great deal going on underneath that we didn’t see in Unholy Ghosts, and that is what I’d truly love to read more about. Or maybe I just hope there is. Seeing her gain personal relationships and begin to think beyond what she had is definitely a change for her. I’m interested in seeing how those things affect her going forward and what reactions they cause.

The world that Stacia Kane has built is fascinating, fully fleshed out, and intriguing. I like how she built the Church of the Real Truth, and it’s ‘rules’ for living life. I actually hate the Church a little bit, because I’d never want to live in such a society. Their way is The Way. There is only Truth. Right and wrong are based on the facts of truth and determined by the Church. They bid people to watch their family, friends and neighbors for signs of them committing crimes which they can then be punished for by the Church. For only through debasement can redemption and forgiveness come. Blegh. What a society. And yet they apparently care nothing for those less fortunate that live in areas like Downside.

The magic and the ghosts, their history and use, was interesting and well thought out. I liked how many different aspects of the world we experienced in the short time we were with Chess. Possession. Blood, earth, spirit and dream magic. Objects that require sacrifice to use. Others that will bring about wanted results – from protective to very dangerous. I especially loved the Hand of Glory – because it’s one of my favorite occult objects in stories.

I admit, the character I enjoyed the most was Terrible – Bump’s top enforcer. He had a depth to him that I didn’t see in a lot of the other characters. He had interests outside of his job, educated himself on things that intrigued him, even without the benefit of a public education, and he surprised me more than once – not something easy to do I have to say. I found him to have an unselfish sort of sweetness and protectiveness which only served to add to his appeal. There also seemed to be a bit of insecurity there that I’d love to see further explored. All in all, I’d definitely love to see more of Terrible.

Ms. Kane touches on a lot of hot button topics and doesn’t pull her punches in Unholy Ghosts. She pushes boundaries, and shows a different side of the world than we usually see – even in our urban fantasy. Obviously the book made me think and brought out some strong responses in me. The pacing was superb, the plot interesting and it was a good introduction to the world without having information just dumped on me. I especially loved the little quotes at the beginning of each chapter. The mystery didn’t really intrigue me as much as the details and intricacy of the world, the spirit world and the tools used for magic.

Unholy Ghosts was a rollercoaster of a ride that I read in a three hour flight. It was vivid and set in a beautifully dark world. I’m very glad I read it and experienced it for myself and I will probably be picking up at least the next novel in the series, Unholy Magic (with City of Ghosts to follow that). I’d love to see Chess pull herself out of the life she’s created for herself and become something more. I want to see the growth. I would like to see what happens to the Church, and to Chess and definitely to Terrible.

Grade: D+

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