Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58707-2
I was very reluctant to read Industrial Magic at first because my memories of Paige Winterbourne from Dime Store Magic are those of a very stupid witch who lets all the bad guys walk all over her or manipulate her for their own benefits. Still, I have to catch up on things in the Otherworld so it is with a weary sigh that I turn to page one. To my surprise, I eventually come across this later into the story:
And then I thought: Goddamn it, you’re standing here sniveling and hoping that your boyfriend saves you before you bleed out. Typical witch.
Ladies and gentlemen, Paige Winterbourne has undergone a transformation within a year after Dime Store Magic into… well, not exactly someone like Linda Hamilton’s character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day but a confident woman who no longer stands helplessly in confusion as the world crumbles around her or wails in dismay because she feels too helpless in such situations. Maybe it’s the effect of mood stabilizers or an alien abduction, but whatever it is that causes Paige Winterbourne to change, I’m not quibbling about it. I like this Paige Winterbourne and I love my blood pressure more to demand a return of that whiny idiotic doormat from Dime Store Magic.
Notably muted in gore and body count compared to previous books by Ms Armstrong, Industrial Magic is more akin to an investigative/procedural mystery. Paige has settled down into a relationship with Lucas Cortez, the black sheep son of the Cortez Cabal who is working against his own family. The adopted young witch lady Savannah is on her way to becoming the precious petulant daughter every sitcom tends to have. And then, one day a case falls onto their lap: the teenage children of the Cabal members are getting killed one by one. One of them is a half-witch and Paige feels compelled to stick her nose into the case despite her reservations about dealing with Benicio Cortez, Lucas’s father, and the other folks of the half-demonic organized crime folks of the four powerful Cabals. Soon, lured into the mystery are the vampires, an irreverent necromancer, and of course, the werewolves we’ve met in previous books.
Despite the low body count and the disappointing lack of high-octane gore (yes, I’m such a sick person, I know), Industrial Magic nonetheless remains a very engrossing read. A main part of this is the author’s deft development of her fantasy world’s canon. Her Otherworld is a combination of all kinds of paranormal myths and folklore and under any other circumstances, things could turn out to be a complete mess. But here, everything seems to fit very nicely, from the necromancers with their powers to communicate with the dead to the vampires (which is unlike the typical bloodsucking kind found elsewhere) to the ever-expanding types of half-demons and the kind of special abilities they have. There are even ghosts and a look into the ghostly afterlife. They are all fascinating and very interesting. Lucas is a little too bland on the goody-goody side but this isn’t really his story. It’s Paige, and she is more confident, poised, and skilled here. Jaime the wisecracking character is also a lively comic relief character who also shows enough depths and darker aspects of her existence to make me actually wish I would know her better in her own story one day. I am also intrigued by Adam, the pyromaniac half-demon, who seems to be trying to change his happy-go-lucky life and maybe even follow his scholarly father’s footsteps. Oh dear, I’ve fallen completely into Ms Armstrong’s sequel-baiting and I don’t mind it one bit. Oh dear.
I have two reservations about this otherwise enjoyable story.
One, as the story hurtles towards its denouement, Ms Armstrong starts pulling out deus ex machina plot devices, such as the appearances of helpful characters in the past, usually out of the blue, to save the day when Paige and Lucas are in deep trouble. For all the build-up, the climax of the story and the aftermath are surprisingly mundane. Thanks to the heavy deus ex machina overtones of the developments that lead to this climax, I find myself wondering why Paige didn’t call up her super paranormal buddies the moment she needs them and end this story so much quicker. The stubbornness of a main character and his willingness to put himself in danger – at the risk of the bad guy unleashing who-knows-what should his plan succeed – just to make a point to his son is another plot development that has me scratching my head. Industrial Magic builds up all this fascinating canon about the vampires and the Cabal in a complex network of supernatural beast politics and power struggle only to completely unravel by the last page. Ms Armstrong seems to stop writing a story and instead starts of some kind of comic book set-up where every superhero emerge out of the blue to whack the bad guy. Who cares about logic? I’m supposed to be so in love with these characters that I’m expected to be in joy just to see all of them so happy and working together like one big family – oh, oh, oh. Pffft. I’m disappointed, to say the least.
Two, Ms Armstrong isn’t above dumbing down her stories to make her characters more accessible, “likable”. For example, Paige is quite a judgmental character (but so is Elena – most of Ms Armstrong’s heroines so far can be very judgmental) but in this case, initially I find her willingness to accept, or “understand”, if you will, Benicio Cortez but not the villain’s motivations for his actions a contradiction of sorts. But that’s made clear to me when it becomes apparent that Ms Armstrong is vigorously white-washing the Cortez Cabal. In previous books, the Cabals are the Godfather monsters that terrorize everyone with their cruelty and ruthlessly. But here, Benicio morphs into a pretty benevolent guy who is kind to his employees and loves his son. I’m surprised that he doesn’t start pretending that he’s Gene Hackman. There are also the main characters of the next book. Previously she was a black witch and he was a mean SOB Cabal guy. But in this book, they become chirpy guardian angels and star-crossed lovers and I am half-afraid to see what kind of treatment Ms Armstrong will give them in the next book. Suddenly, it seems that there are sunshine in these supernatural beings’ hearts and apparently they aren’t mean, they’re just misunderstood, awww.
The fact that this book’ Paige is the first heroine from this author who isn’t weak or helpless explains a large part of my enjoyment of this book. But unfortunately, at the same time the plotting unravels as the story progresses and the author drops the ball in the late third of the story, when she resorts to massive amount of fanservice just to keep readers happy. The Otherworld is becoming a larger and more complicated yet intriguing place to visit, but perhaps it’s too large for Ms Armstrong to fully handle in this story. Oh, and if the werewolves and the vampires start holding hands with the witches and the half-demons to sing Kumbayah in the next book, I swear I’ll scream.