Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Unholy Ghosts (Downside Ghosts book 1) review

    Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series is an Urban Fantasy series with a surprising amount of edge. Unlike many of its sibling series, the novels are not just focused on the romance element. Instead, its primary focus is the dark hard-edged world our heroine lives in and her struggles to maintain her sanity against a bleak world without hope.

    The premise of the Downside Ghosts universe is that, roughly fifteen years ago, the Underworld cracked open and plunged the Earth into a ghost-filled apocalypse. The result of this was the death of a third of mankind followed by the rise of a totalitarian one-world dictatorship called the Church of Real Truth. The Church promptly banned all worship of gods, created its own secret police, and ruthlessly purged all of its enemies. It is a stark world, immediately drawing you in with the sense of this is not right about the place.

    Our heroine, Chess, is one of the Church's ghost hunters. She's a drug addict, abuse victim, and deeply damaged individual. Despite this, she proves an effective heroine as she loyally serves the Church yet is keenly aware her world is not right. It's an interesting display of moral ambiguity to have the heroine loyal to people who are utterly corrupt yet have had a positive influence on her life.

    The book opens with Chess discovering her drug dealer, the vulgar yet hilarious Bump, has decided to leverage her considerable tab into a private service for him. Apparently, the airstrip Bump uses is haunted and needs Chess to exorcise it. To make sure she lives up to her end of the bargain, he sends along his mountain-like associate Terrible.

    Part of what I like about Unholy Ghosts is how relentlessly cynical the book is combined with the awareness this is not how people should live. Chess has no interest in improving the world, she merely wants to carry out her duties as a Church Witch, yet there is an unconscious sense things are not as they should be. The Church guarantees an afterlife for all its worshipers yet life after death is dismal and dull. Arguably, hell would be better than an eternity empty of feeling.

    I also appreciated how unsentimental Chess is. Unlike most Paranormal Romance heroines, she is no particular mood to begin a romance. She's sexually active but emotionally closed off with no desire to change this state. For an emotionally repressed addict, she's content with who she is. I've read the adventures of a lot of so-called antiheroes over the years and it's nice to see one with actual flaws.

     The character of Terrible, by contrast, is the emotional core of the book. A terrifying figure of power and danger, he turns out to be one of the most moral individuals in the setting. Whereas Chess is dark and troubled, Terrible is a killer with a heart. It's a nice contrast to what you'd expect that the government mercenary is the amoral mercenary while the drug dealer's enforcer is the conscience.

    A supporting character I'm very fond of is Lex, who is a stark contrast to sociopath Bump. Part of the humor of the series is the drug dealers are the most animated characters in the setting. In a world where the dead walk, those who deal chemicals seem to be the only people getting on with their lives. The Chinese gangster, Lex, seems at once more intelligent as well as charismatic than half of the Church put together.

    The world, itself, reminds me of the World of Darkness game line Wraith: The Oblivion. In W:TO, the dead are forced into a massive other-dimensional city called Stygia where life is a pale reflection of the mortal world. Downside Ghosts has a lot of similarities to it, especially in how the Hierarchy functions as compared to the Church of Real Truth. Fans of that long-canceled game line would enjoy this book and its heroine.

    If I had any real complaints about Unholy Ghosts, it's how the setting doesn't take as much time developing its secondary characters as it does its heroine. We get Chess' drug dealers, Chess herself, Terrible, and a handful of others. The world would have felt more vibrant, more alive, if we'd gotten a sense of how other people were dealing with the Post-Apocalyptic Earth.

    Best moment of the book? The fact Unholy Ghosts uses Tobin's Spirit Guide from the Ghostbusters franchise as a real-world document.


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