Series: Downside Ghosts, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 5677 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Dark, Gritty, and Seductive
Chess Putnam works for The Church of Real Truth as a Debunker, a magically gifted person sent in to debunk or banish ghosts haunting the living. The Church makes the laws, punishes the guilty, and rules the world following an event that happened twenty-four years ago. For one hellish week back then, ghosts rose against humanity and went on a killing rampage, and when it was over, two thirds of the world's population was dead and the Church of Real Truth was in charge. It's been that way ever since.
Feeding a costly drug habit is expensive and Chess owes her dealer a bundle - but not the outrageous fifteen thousand he claims. That sort of debt could kill her if he was so inclined, but instead, he taps her to do a job at an abandoned airport - either debunk or banish the ghosts that are bringing down his supply planes. Unfortunately, nothing about Chess' life is ever easy, and soon she's popping pills and snorting speed faster and faster just to get through deeper and more dangerous ugliness.
A reluctant detective at best, Chess stumbles upon a horrifying act of ritual sacrifice that points to a conspiracy to overthrow The Church. She no longer has the the luxury of getting high and doing nothing, and she isn't quite ready to self destruct just yet, so she has little choice but to find the source of evil that brutally sacrificed a man and stirred up the ghosts of the city, then eradicate it. If she can't, she dies...and takes everything and everyone around her with her.
Not for the faint of heart, this bleak world full of damaged characters isn't a light read, but it's thoroughly defined and brutally vibrant. Imaginative and creative, Kane has penned a solid start to a unique series, but while I can appreciate it from an objective standpoint, I have to admit, it's didn't leave me feeling any warm fuzzies when I was done. Chess is a broken, flawed, ragged character who gleefully embraces her addictions and while Kane offered up glimpses of why she is who and what she is, the razor-wired barricades Chess keeps between her and the rest of humanity as well as the rampant drug addiction and careless sexuality tip the scales too heavily towards a moral bankruptcy to allow for much sympathy in her as a heroine. But she's definitely unique.
I was surprised that I found her at all likable - likable, not sympathetic - because for all that I enjoy flawed characters, I don't usually favor self destructive ones, and certainly not to the extent Chess is, but despite her many and varied vices and a predilection for looking out for her own ass first, last, and every time in between, there's something about Chess that I liked. Maybe it's that she's so stunted and damaged emotionally that she's almost bowled over by the realization that she has a man in her life that she trusts. Something about that tugs on my emotions a bit. Maybe it's because she isn't the smartest person in the world and she tends to make mistakes - a lot of mistakes, but she owns up to them just as she owns up to her addictions. She has no illusions about herself and she's exceptionally human for all those flaws. There's a bit of nobility in that mess of neurosis. It's a flickering flame in a stiff breeze, but it's there.
The relationship between Chess and Terrible, top enforcer of the drug king pin who supplies Chess, is subtly but masterfully developed and the high point of the book for me. As the story unfolds, Terrible proves himself a valuable ally and her very first friend. It's through that relationship and fragile bond that you see the most of Chess' humanity, and there is something poignant and touching about Terrible - even with his size, his ferocity, and his near sociopathic ability to kill - that allows glimpses of how Chess betters him as he betters her. I sincerely hope to see much more of the Chess and Terrible team as the series continues.
As far as plot goes, it's well written and the pacing is good. Not excellent throughout, as there were a couple of times that I got bogged down in the technical aspects of magic and the concept of the big bad Chess was up against, but overall it was a steady, if grim, read that I enjoyed. I do wish it some aspects of the book and some of the exposition had been a bit more clear, but I don't know if what was offered truly wasn't enough in general, or if I just couldn't wrap my mind around some of it because of the magic. For some reason I have a hard time with magic in books. Read tons of books that feature magic, and every time it's a struggle, so it could be that. Whatever the reason, I had some difficulty with scenes with magic as well as some of the world building and goings on with The Church that revolved around it. I can't shake the sense of trepidation about The Church, though. Perhaps I'm bringing my personal issues into it too much, but I have an instinctive dislike of the world that Chess is living in and The Church controlling it.
Still, I enjoyed the book and have already downloaded the second and third in the series, Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the emotionally crippled and damaged Chess and seeing how she develops, not to mention seeing how the winds blow with her and Terrible. With Unholy Ghosts as a yardstick, I'm betting it won't be easy reading, but it's sure to be darkly captivating.