Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shifty Magic

I received a free review copy of the book from Judy Teel, the author, in exchange for an honest review; she was gracious about how long it took to produce the review, and I'm excited to be working from my first author-provided copy.
 
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Compact (252 pages)
Publication: May 21, 2013 from Golden Angel Books
Premise: Addison Kittner has been struggling to make ends meet starting out as a PI/bounty hunder when she stumbles into a case far above her normal pay grade. She finds herself caught between the vampires, the Weres, the FBI, and darker forces that she's only beginning to understand....all while trying to grasp her own identity.
Warnings: gore, sexual harassment
Recommendation: While a few genuinely interesting moments set Addison apart, for the most part Shifty Magic doesn't have much that you can't find somewhere else. It samples from urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and YA-- the pieces work fairly well on their own, but they don't always blend.


What makes this one compelling:

The story opens on Addison Kittner going down a dark alley in search of her cat and coming across a prostitute about to be drained by a group of vampires. She takes them out, though not without sustaining a few nasty injuries, and an FBI detail happens along and takes her back to the station along with the vamps she's captured. While there, she meets the local vampire Regent, Lord Bellmonte, who is interested to learn that his renegades were captured by a young human. Addison's quick temper gets her into trouble when she immediately gives the money away, and the decision works quite well; she's acting like an idiot, but in a way that makes her quick temper a genuine flaw instead of a stated soft spot that doesn't actually trip her up. She can be very human in her way, playful and sulky and sometimes uncertain rather than just stoic, and that helps contribute to the book's light pacing. It can be a little over-convenient to watch Addison skim from one helpful assistant who adores her to another even though she has no money, but the action doesn't really let up. The narrative covers less than a week: in that time, people die, Addison goes through extensive personal growth, and it all works together for an engaging presentation. Teel keeps extraneous scenes to a minimum, and that in turn makes sure that the action is compact without dead space to let the reader's attention drift away. It's hard not to search for clues along with Addison and wonder when she'll see something she missed...though frustrating when she whips out short-term conclusions without the previous segment having provided the clues necessary to get there.

The worldbuilding definitely has some intriguing elements, most notably in the development of the vampire hierarchy. Weres (were-whats is another question, since we only see wolves but it's implied that there are different kinds) live in clans, but vampires are organized into a structure loosely modeled on the medieval Church, complete with Deacons and Regents. Instead of confining themselves to warehouses or underground lairs, many of them live the high life in a tinted skyscraper that keeps out the deadly UV rays.They want to literally and figuratively be above everyone else, and they have the finances to do so. People who need money are drawn to the temptation of being drained of only some of their blood, and some even become long-time donors because they're addicted to the blissfully orgasmic effects of vampire venom. That venom is illegal to sell because it can be used as a weapon as well a drug, so a whole black market has sprung up around it-- most vampires are reluctant to go up against the Church's rulings, but power struggles play out behind the scenes. Addison is witness to the edges of just one, and the implied depth of conflict really could support several more books. Vampires sometimes hide who their relatives are to avoid exposing weakness, they have ways of protecting and healing each other that are kept hidden from humans, and anyone being turned into a vampire can upset the local balance of power as new people become blood kin. It could make for intricate plots, and even the pieces we get are rich enough to let the rest flow smoothly by implication.

Addison doesn't always make the best hard-boiled detective, but the way she's willing to follow clues logically even if it involves dull highlighting of files or planning a break-in to figure out what a suspect was hiding makes it easy to give her points for persistence and dedication. Even when she's not doing the smartest thing, she's trying to do the right one, and it's hard not to respect the way she insists on being a professional equal instead of a consultant with things being hidden from her. She's willing to turn down money she desperately needs or shy away from better equipment on loan as a matter of principle because she's reluctant to be beholden to anyone, trapped in commitments that she might not like later. It's a knee-jerk reaction in some ways, but it's one that's allowed her to survive without parents or the protection of an institution; given the chance to prove herself, she really can apply stubborn ingenuity to a problem to resolve it, even if her solution shouldn't rationally work or is likely to get her killed. She's fiercely independent in a way that screws her over but also keeps her safe on some level, and that struggle shapes her characterization in the small ways as well as the large.

The red pen: 

While the novel sparks interest with the balance between humans and paranormals, many of the surrounding elements are just too generic to carry their own weight. Addison herself raises some interesting questions that could be answered in the sequels as well as more that just....don't make sense. We know that she lived on the streets for a while and was in the foster care system with no idea of who her parents were, and now she's a private investigator/bounty hunter. She succeeds in part because of her special formulas on her weapons to aid in bring vampires down, which helps explain why she survives in this business as a human, but there's no provided reason why she has these formulas and no one else seems to, given that her supplier could make a killing selling it widely as a last-ditch line of self-defense. That alone could be shrugged off, but other things don't work: early in the book she gets edgy when someone's too nosy about how she moved so fast, but she has nothing to be edgy about because she's not knowingly hiding a secret. The clincher, though, is her tone: she's written in the hard-boiled PI mode, complete with the cynicism and world-weary attitude, but Addison is nineteen and has been in the business for barely a year. Her moments of nausea around dead bodies and uneasiness with getting in too deep with powerful people ring true, but it's hard not to want to just pat her on the head with a "that's cute" when she starts expounding about how she seems to be the only one who doesn't trust manipulative vamps and their dirty money. Her age shows in a bad way when she's allowed to be part of any interrogation or interact with suspects-- she has all the subtlety of a hammer, doesn't know when to back off, and has a gift for parting shots that would guarantee a hostile reception at any repeat talks.

The worldbuilding is also shaky on the supernatural front. A standard supernatural setup with vampires and werewolves and a few mages (practitioners, in this case) comes with infinite permutations, but this felt disappointingly paint-by-numbers once it moved past the governmental aspects. Vampires are sneaky and manipulative and like to play power games just because they can, and Addison doesn't trust them. Weres are loyal, good, live in clans, value family, and are implied to mate for life, so they seem to be on the long-suffering side of the angels-- angels who sniff things and comment on Addison's pheromone levels, admittedly, but angels nonetheless. Practitioners get hardly any attention except as background characters, with the lion's share of the page-time going to a false practitioner running a con game to get underage women to sleep with him. Lord Bellmonte, the Charlotte Regent and a centuries-old vampire, is fascinated with Addison and pins her to walls while snarling that he'll own her or kill her. On one visit, he even makes her remove any hidden weapons by wearing a provided tiny dress and a collar-like jeweled necklace that she refuses to touch. This sort of thing can be edgy in a dark triangle with vampires as the element calling to a sexual dark side based on control while werewolves call to primitive lust and deep emotion, but the vampires bad/werewolves good dynamic means that Lord Bellmonte comes off as sleazy without being an actual threat. Addison talks a big game about how dangerous it is to go see him, but it's apparently not dangerous enough for her to do things like sleep first to make sure she doesn't screw up, or even send him a message via the many forms of modern technology that everyone, including vampires, seems to have.

Slapping morality labels on an entire magical species can work, especially if you're confining labels to just vampires while everyone else inhabits a spectrum a la Robin McKinley's Sunshine, but "vampires are bad and Weres are awesome and kind of sexy" kills some of the potential dark tension. This holds especially true with Addison's attraction to Cooper Daine, a Were who works for the FBI. He wants to protect her and shows no sign of becoming too aggressive, so the only real emotional challenge is overcoming her own fear of love to be with the perfect partner, and that's not a lot of suspense as romantic arcs go. It could work, but it eats too much space without adding anything but angst and directionless sexual tension. The same holds true for many of the minor characters and expository passages: they exist to move the plot without adding anything of value. Addison's clothes make more appearances than they need to, as does everyone else's wardrobe, and if Cooper Daine appears without his scent of moonlight and trees being mentioned, it's a rare surprise. The prose is adjective-heavy across the board in a way that makes the exposition even heavier, and minor characters can be neatly split into people who are good (and think Addison is great) and people who are bad (and don't). Agent Stillman, for example, is Cooper Daine's partner in the FBI: she seems to be competent, but she's also unprofessional and barges between Addison and Cooper, because as a woman in a life-or-death profession, naturally her first priority is starting some imagined competition so that Addison can be the tough sassy one who totally doesn't care what anyone thinks of her. This genre as a whole is bad at letting female protagonists have decent same-gender friendships, but it's telling that I can't think of any women who both start and end the book on Addison's side.

Other details don't quite work because they leave too many holes in the structure of the world. Perhaps the most nagging detail was the repeated description of an African-American character as "exotic." This took me aback at the time, so I did some quick research, and present-day Charlotte is thirty-five percent black. Black people in North Carolina are about as "exotic" as traffic lights, so I kept an eye out for any paranormal alternate-universe development that meant no trans-atlantic slave trade, but an explanation never appeared. We know in a loose sense that the paranormal world made itself public between the present day and 2033 and launched a nasty series of terrorist attacks, but there's no sense of how these creatures stayed hidden for so long or why they went public, or how humanity has gone from bitter wars to it not being "politically correct" to dislike vampires when the modern political scene is still wrapping its head around totally human people with personal differences. I'd be interested in reading about how the world got this way, but the status quo is just too shaky to hold up to close examination at this stage.

The verdict: This may sound odd to say, but I enjoyed the reading experience without appreciating many particular aspects of the story itself. I managed to call a good two-thirds of the plot twists and the villain's identity without trying, but it manages to hit that sweet spot of being fun to guess. It's easy to roll your eyes at Addison's forced world-weary tone or the vampire melodrama, although it's engaging enough that I finished it in two fairly short sittings-- on the whole, it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Prospects: This is the first of a planned four in the Shifty Magic series.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~For a more genuinely young approach to urban fantasy with some romance, try Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Kitty is afraid but still naive about the world she inhabits, and that's unusual in this genre.

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