Del Rey, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-52750-9
Sacrificial Magic is book four in Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series, and while this book has a mostly standalone plot, the characters’ interplay is carried over from previous books. I suspect that new readers jumping into the series at this book may feel like strangers in a party where everyone else knows each other. At any rate, feel free to read my review of the first book, Unholy Ghosts, to get the background information on this series.
This time around, Chess Putnam is assigned by the Church to investigate the haunting of the Mercy Lewis Second School. Sounds simple, right? Except, the school is located in the territory controlled by Slobag, whose son Lex happened to share Chess’s bed until she decided to break it off due to her feelings for Terrible. Things get a little awkward as a result, especially since there are trust issues between Chess and Terrible. Also, Chess has to look into a series of murders on the side as a favor for Terrible’s boss Bump. Bump also happens to be Chess’s dealer. Chess, by the way, is an unrepentant junkie. Again, this case sees her crossing the territorial line of Downside into Slobag’s territory. Poor Chess, she will really need her happy pills to deal with all this.
If you are new to the series, I have better let you know that this series is mostly darker than your typical urban fantasy series, mostly because the heroine is a junkie whose attempts to do the right thing don’t always succeed. She’s messed up, and a big part of the series deals with her efforts to keep herself in check instead of losing control completely to the dark side. Not that this series is a PSA on the dangers of addiction: Chess is already damaged inside, and the Cepts help her keep herself together to do her thing. Of course, her dependency on the Cepts cause her to sometimes lose control of a situation, but hey, that’s the way things roll.
While the plot is self-contained – it is resolved by the end of this book – a big part of the story deals with Chess’s relationship with Terrible as well as her continuous internal struggles. Always keeping people at bay to protect herself, Chess has somehow let Terrible get under her skin, and now she has to somehow get everything sorted out without making a mess of everything. How she can do this is something she has to figure out as the story progresses. Ms Kane handles this delicate aspect of the story very well here. The whole thing could have blown out of control, but… I don’t know how the author does it, but everything manages to come together very well by the last page. The author smartly avoids coming up with simplistic and convenient sunny resolutions, instead letting the characters pull through and make peace with some aspects of themselves while remaining flawed. Some damage can’t be healed completely, it takes time, and this story embraces that truth. This degree of realism makes the story hit harder and closer to the heart.
Unfortunately, the author could have handled the non-internal conflicts a bit better. The first half of this book is pretty weak, I find, because the proceedings feel contrived. I can accept that Chess will be interrupted by a phone call or untimely entry of a secondary character now and then, but when such events constantly occur to keep the suspense going, the story starts to feel staged. I can accept a few characters showing up to be deliberately nasty and mean to Chess, but when characters after characters form a line and take shots at Chess, I begin to feel that the author is trying too hard to make Chess look like the underdog. Chess getting into trouble – well, that’s part of the job. But when she gets into the same type of trouble several times in a row at the very same location, and Chess just takes everything in stride, that’s when I start to roll up my eyes and say, “These people must be kidding me!”
A lot of the drama in this story don’t flow organically; too much of the first half feels directed by an overly self-conscious person who keeps resorting to a limited repertoire of tricks to keep things interesting. The second half of this book is an explosive read with some gorgeous display of angst nicely mixed with scenes of danger and nail-biting excitement. If only Sacrificial Magic had been consistently good instead of packing all the good stuff only in the second half, really. If only.