Del Rey, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-51557-5
In 1997, for reasons that we will not discover at this point in the series, ghosts rose from their graves to slaughter millions of people worldwide. It was only with the intervention of a then-small cult known as the Church of Real Truth that the ghosts were finally halted and imprisoned away. The remaining surviving population of world eventually lost their faith in the old religions, instead venerating the Church of Real Truth. After all, when you know that ghosts are imprisoned in an underground city, the concept of afterlife in various religions seemed false.
Unholy Ghosts is set in such a setting. Our heroine Cesaria “Chess” Putnam is a Debunker. The Church trains and employs Debunkers, people trained in exorcising ghosts. They are called Debunkers because their job is primarily to prove false reports of haunting. After all, the Church is supposed to have taken care of the ghosts, remember? Thus, the Debunkers only get a bonus when they prove without a doubt that a report of haunting is falsified by people hoping to get monetary compensation from the Church.
Poor Chess, however, in this story, she gets cases that turn out to be genuine. If that is not enough, our heroine is heavily in debt to the local crime boss Bump. Bump deliberately increases the interest on the debt in an attempt to blackmail Chess into helping him solve his dilemma. You see, he wants to reopen the old Chester Airport to facilitate his, er, export and import activities, but the airport is haunted, and it’s not like he can walk up to the Church and ask for a Debunker to look into the matter. Meanwhile, the local Chinese gang, led by a fellow named Lex, wants Chess to not let Bump reopen that airport. If that isn’t complicated enough, Chess has to deal with a new case of haunting and what seems like a genuine demon let loose to wreck havoc in the city. In a city that houses the City of Eternity, the underground prison of ghosts, such havoc could unleash another cataclysmic event like Haunted Week in 1997.
Unholy Ghosts gets plenty of credit for being a gritty, tense, and bleak story that dares to be very different from the current formulaic urban fantasies out there. There is a developing love triangle here between Chess, Lex, and Bump’s enforcer Terrible, but this love triangle doesn’t overwhelm the story or turn it into a hoochie lottery show. The author manages to create a setting that conjures a vivid sense of desperation and hopelessness, and she also takes some risks in letting her characters stay in the grey zone.
For example, Chess is a junkie. But it makes sense for her to be one, given that she was from the poorer part of Downside. The only thing that separates her from the other residents of this ghetto part of the world is her educated speech, which she could thank the Church for. Lex is, of course, a crime boss, and Terrible does things for his boss Bump that include smacking up kids and more. All these characters have their own code of honor that they follow, but they will never be mistaken for goody-two-shoes. Chess also surprises me with her “I’ll watch out for myself first and foremost” attitude. I’m used to heroines throwing themselves forth to sacrifice themselves for the smallest of reasons, so it’s a nice change to encounter a heroine who is, for once, pragmatic enough to think of her own well-being in dangerous situations.
Lex is still a question mark by the end of this book, but I like the chemistry between Chess and Terrible. Terrible, despite his less than romantic nickname, is scarred and hulking in a “beautiful monster” kind of manner, and I like that. It makes the contrast between his on-the-job personality and his unexpectedly sweet side for Chess all the more intriguing. I’d be disappointed if the author had changed these characters for the “better”, since they, including Chess and her pill-popping ways, add flavor to the bleak noir feel to the story.
The pacing is gritty and compelling, and, while the identity of the villain is a bit of a let down due to how obvious things turn out to be, the denouement is exciting. All in all, this is a very readable book with good payoff, except for one thing.
The author for some reason overplays her “Chess can’t catch a break” hand. Things become better once Chess works closely with Terrible in the late quarter of the story, because he’s there to give her a hand when things get rough for her. But for a long time, the story is a non-stop marathon of Chess floundering and flailing as she encounters trouble after trouble. She turns into this corner of town? She gets attacked. She goes into the library of the Church? She gets attacked too. She runs home and… you guess it, finds trouble waiting for her there. Chess can’t get even the tiniest break. When she tries to avoid being noticed by Terrible in one scene, the author just has to have Chess trip and sprain an ankle – an already injured ankle. Chess spends the story a state of sleeplessness, frustration, and even pain when she’s not experiencing a craving for Cepts. No wonder she needs Cepts, come to think of it. I’d be a pill-popping junkie too if I were subjected to the constant stress and frustration experienced by her in this story.
Now, I don’t mind that Chess is not a lady of action. But when I have to read about poor Chess experiencing non-stop fear, hunger, frustration, and more for several hundred pages, after a while I feel that my own nerves have been scrubbed raw in the process. It’s just too much – I have to put down this book at various points to decompress as there are not enough quiet moments in this book to allow me to do so. Also, the constant getting into trouble on the heroine’s part makes the story feel contrived in a The Exorcist-meets-The Road Runner Show manner.
While I can’t say I am enamored of this story that much, I am intrigued enough by the setting to immediately pre-order the next two books in this series after I’ve put down this book. That’s how well the author has sold her series on me using this book, heh. I can only hope that the next two books have a plot that flows more naturally with some ups and downs in the heroine’s progress instead of the “Chess is in distress all the name, with the drama level ramped up to max” state of this story.