Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
I remember reading the first book of Laura Anne Gilman’s Paranormal Scene Investigations series, Hard Magic, and having sort of a so-so reaction: I liked it, but not enough to classify it as one of my favorite series/books. It had some interesting elements, but not enough to really distinguish it from the other urban fantasies I read.
By the time Pack of Lies, the second book, rolls around, the characters have settled down into their roles as crime investigators for the supernatural community, leaving more time to concentrate on their interpersonal interactions and the underlying story. The personalities are more distinct this time around, and I didn’t mix up characters as I did in the first book (a risk inherent to a large ensemble cast). Also, Gilman seems to have upped the ante this time around: the stakes are higher for both the characters and the world. And there’s a lot more sexual tension—always a good thing, in my book. Yet for some reason, I still wouldn’t classify this series among my favorites. It’s growing on me, and I will read the first book, and yet I still feel like there’s something keeping it out of that “love it” category.
The series centers around Bonita (Bonnie) Torres, a recent college graduate who joins the unfortunately named “P.U.P.I.” (Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations), a team devoted to investigating crimes within the supernatural community. They use magic much the same way CSI and similarly themed television shows use forensic science: as a (sometimes too convenient) tool to solve crimes. A group of extremists within the magic community don’t believe that magic should be used for such ends, and set out to stop P.U.P.I. by whatever means possible. In the first book, the newly formed P.U.P.I. must prove itself to the magic community by proving that the deaths of an elderly, influential couple was murder, not suicide.
And that pretty much brings us to the second book. The description of Pack of Lies, courtesy of Amazon (since I couldn’t find it on the publisher’s webpage:
My name is Bonita Torres, and eight months ago I was an unemployed college graduate without a plan. Now I’m an investigator with the Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations team of New York. Pretty awesome, right?
The Cosa Nostradamus, the magical community, isn’t quick to give up its secrets, though. Not even to fellow members. Not even when it’s in their best interests. So we’ve been busting our tails, perfecting our forensic skills, working to gain acceptance. The team’s tight… but we have our quirks, too. And our Big Dog, Benjamin Venec…well, he’s a special case, all right.
But we can’t give up. We’re needed, especially when a case comes along that threatens to pit human against fatae. But one wrong move could cost us everything we’ve worked for…
The stakes in this book are definitely higher than the first. A young woman is sexually assaulted and saved by a mysteriously, enigmatic fatae (a variation on fey/fairy), and at first it seems like an open-and-shut case—until one of her attackers claims to have been set up. The conflicting stories threaten to put a rift in the already tenuous relationship between the human world and the fatae. Whereas in Hard Magic, the price of P.U.P.I’s failure would only impact the group itself, this time, the stakes impact the entire magical world. Higher stakes are always good.
The sexual tension—which was almost nonexistent in Hard Magic—practically sizzles off the page this time around. There’s an intense attraction between Bonnie and Ben Venec, one of P.U.P.I.’s founders. It’s palatable, and growing, and it’s awesome. Of course, bedding the boss is rarely a good idea, so they share that sort of slow-burning attracting that could propel the series for several books to come. As an added bonus, Gilman switches perspectives from time to time, so we get to see the attraction from Ben’s side as well. Ben’s scenes, I’ve got to say, are my favorite parts of the book.
Other positives: the characters have also grown more unique and distinct this time around. There are five people in P.U.P.I, plus its two leaders. In the first go-around, I felt like a needed a cheat-sheet to tell them all apart. (It doesn’t help that two of the guys are named Nick—though one is called Nifty.) This time, now that I’ve been properly introduced to the characters, I didn’t have the same problem. The transition between the first- and third-person perspectives seems less jarring this time. In addition, P.U.P.I.’s case, this time around, exists in that kind of ambiguous moral space that works well on cop shows; this series, as a play on that very concept, is no exception.
The negatives: Honestly, I think a lot of my ambivalence about the series has to do with Bonnie herself. As a character, she often lacks maturity and makes very stupid decisions. There were a couple of times during the first book where I absolutely wanted to strangle her. This time around, she seems to have grown up a bit, but there are still times when I felt like her flighty, impractical nature clashed with her job competence. That said, it’s good that Bonnie has room to grow. It’s clear that she’s matured since Hard Magic, and it will be interesting to see how she continues to evolve as a character throughout the series. That said, I don’t think I was ever quite so impetuous, even as a 22-year-old recent college grad, so it’s much harder to relate now that I’m several years removed from that stage of my life.
Overall, I liked—but didn’t love—the book. But one thing I’ve discovered about reading series fiction is that they tend to either improve over time…or deteriorate. The Paranormal Scene Investigations series is on an upward trend, which means I’ve got something to look forward to in the third book.
Books in the Paranormal Scene Investigations Series
Pack of Lies
Note: I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley. Pack of Lies will be released from Luna Books on January 18.