Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
I’ve written about Stacia Kane’s wonderful Downside Ghosts series before, but it occurs to me that I haven’t reviewed one of the individual books to talk about why I like the series so much.
The series takes place in a world where, in 1997, murderous ghosts rose from the grave and began to slaughter people. After most of the world’s population was killed, a magic-wielding church rose to contain the ghosts and began to dominate the social and political landscape of this new world.
The series’ protagonist, Chess, was an infant when the ghosts rose from the grave. Now, 24 years later, she’s a witch working as a Debunker for the Church, disproving false hauntings. Chess’s childhood was brutal. After being orphaned during Haunted Week, she was passed from one abusive foster home to another. To cope with those traumatic memories, Chess turned to drugs. Those memories, and her subsequent addiction, continue to plague her.
Which brings us to the fourth book. The book description, courtesy of Stacia Kane’s website:
READING, WRITING, AND RAISING THE DEAD
When Chess Putnam is ordered by an infamous crime boss—who also happens to be her drug dealer—to use her powers as a witch to solve a grisly murder involving dark magic, she knows she must rise to the challenge. Adding to the intensity: Chess’s boyfriend, Terrible, doesn’t trust her, and Lex, the son of a rival crime lord, is trying to reignite the sparks between him and Chess.
Plus there’s the little matter of Chess’s real job as a ghost hunter for the Church of Real Truth, investigating reports of a haunting at a school in the heart of Downside. Someone seems to be taking a crash course in summoning the dead—and if Chess doesn’t watch her back, she may soon be joining their ranks.
As Chess is drawn into a shadowy world of twisted secrets and dark violence, it soon becomes clear that she’s not going to emerge from its depths without making the ultimate sacrifice.
SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE FIRST THREE BOOKS IN THE SERIES.
By the end of the third book, City of Ghosts, Chess and Terrible—the enforcer for the local drug dealer—have come together and declared their love for one another. At the beginning of Sacrificial Magic, they are trying their hands at a relationship. One thing I love about urban fantasy series with romantic subplots is that they generally follow the same characters for several books, which allows them to develop over time. One thing I hate is that, once the couple gets together, the tension level often seems to decrease significantly. Call it “Moonlighting Syndrome,” if you shall, but I’ve found that it’s true in series fiction more often than not: if one of the major sources of conflict/tension in the series was the “will they/won’t they” drama of the two main characters, something often seems to be lost once they finally get together. (On the other hand, keeping them apart for too long seems artificial and contrived, so that doesn’t work, either.)
Kane avoids this trap entirely. One of the things I’ve always loved about this series is just how incredibly damaged she is as a heroine—and yet, you root for her anyway. Kane has managed to create a character who’s both vulnerable and tough. She can be off-putting at times, then incredibly caring and compassionate at others. Her history and her drug addiction don’t exactly make her relationship material. For three books I’ve been wanting to see these characters get a happily ever after ending, but I couldn’t figure out how, given who he is and who she is, they would be able to work it out seamlessly.
They aren’t, and Kane uses this to ratchet up the tension throughout the book. Chess worries Terrible doesn’t trust her. Terrible seems to distance himself from Chess at times. They both have their fears and insecurities, and they both struggle to get past them.
Kane also incorporates a lot of loose ends and unfinished business into the story. Lex, Chess’s former “friend with benefits” and the son of a rival drug dealer, is a major part of this story. The Chess/Terrible/Lex love triangle was messier than most. Although it was always clear that Terrible was the one Chess really cared about and should be with in the end, it was complicated by the fact that Terrible and Lex are mortal enemies—and by the fact that Chess does genuinely care about Lex, and he for her, even if it’s not the type of connection that a long-term romantic relationship should be built from. In real life, the end of one relationship and the beginning of another can be complicated, and I’m glad that Kane didn’t have Lex silently exit stage right. This also served to increase the tension driving the story.
Another major player, tension-wise, in the story is the sigil Chess carved into Terrible’s chest to save his life at the end of Unholy Magic. The sigil has given Terrible an increased sensitivity to magic, which leads to some unforeseen vulnerabilities for Terrible (and vulnerabilities are really bad news for someone who breaks legs for a living). Chess continually worries for his safety and well-being, and with good reason: the one character we’ve met with a similar sigil went crazy after multiple ghost possessions. As much as Chess tries to tell herself that Terrible’s sigil is not the same, that he isn’t in any danger, you have to wonder whether this is just another example of Chess lying to herself to get through the day.
I also enjoyed that we finally got to see some of the opposition to the Church and its dominance. Since the books closely follow Chess’s point of view, and since she views the Church as her rescuer, everything we’ve heard about the Church has been positive—and, call me cynical, but I’ve always been suspicious of this. In Sacrificial Magic, we finally get to see what other people are saying about the Church—as well as some of their suspicions about the origins of Haunted Week. It’s a small thread in an already rich story, but it hinted at possible things to come.
There’s something else I’ve noticed about urban fantasy series. Often, the fourth book seems to be the “make or break” book, the one that will either set the tone for the entire rest of the series—or the one that will fail catastrophically.
I’m happy to say that this one does not fail. In fact, it’s arguably the best book so far. If this is the tone we can expect from the rest of the Downside Ghosts series, then I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the books.