Posted on March 17, 2011 by alanajoli
Available at Amazon.com
It isn’t often that I pick up a book (this one purchased with my own cashy money) where it’s got so much going on, I’m not sure how to start a review. Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts is like that. This isn’t just a ghost story — though it works admirably (and scarily) well in that area. It’s not just postapocalyptic, though again, the brave new (scary) world that Stacia imagines is an amazing one. And though it’s not really a private investigator story, it’s got a lot of similarities to that genre, as the main character goes about solving a mystery and, eventually, confronting a threat that could destroy the world as she knows it. So it’s got epic scope, but the characters aren’t your typical heroes — in fact, they’ve got more in common with your typical villains, and that’s one of the areas where Stacia really succeeds: making characters you don’t really want to trust, but can’t help but like. Or, at the very least, sympathize with.
While she’s crashing genres together, Stacia’s also taking on some pretty big themes: religion, faith, and addiction. In the world of Unholy Ghosts, the dead wreaked havoc on the living, slaying untold numbers of people before the Church of Truth got them in line and confined them to the City. The Church isn’t a religious organization — in fact, it’s the opposite. They can prove that magic is real. They can prove where you go when you die. As such, there’s no need for faith or belief in a higher power. Facts are Truth. That’s all there is to it.
But while the people know the Truth, it also means there’s no mystery, and no real reason for living except that it’s better than existence in the City. Or, at least, that seems to be the case for Chess Putnam, a Debunker for the Church. She’s had a rough life: orphaned and shuttled through foster homes where she was routinely beaten and sexually abused, the first place she ever felt safe was the Church, where she was taken in due to her talents for magic and controlling ghosts. So, she cares about her job, and she cares about doing the right thing. But it’s a toss up whether she cares about those things more than she cares about her own addictions: the pills and powders that make her life seem less empty — and keep her from remembering the pain in her past. And to get her high, she’s in debt to a dealer named Bump, who says he’ll clear what she owes if she’ll do just one little ghost banishing job for him. Of course, it’s not that simple, and between her job for the Church and this job for Bump, she stumbles into a conspiracy to free all the ghosts from the City. That would mean the death of hundreds of people, or more, and the collapse of the power of the Church.
To make sure that Chess does Bump’s job, Bump assigns one of his enforcers to assist (and keep an eye on) her: Terrible, who is a hulking, ugly man with a passion for violence. As the story progresses, however, it’s clear that Terrible, despite his dark side, is a dependable and loyal man. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a heart of gold — he doesn’t seem to have any pangs of remorse for beating the living daylights out of someone who’s crossed Bump, whether or not they deserve it — but he’s got far more depth than Chess, or the reader, might imagine at the outset. He’s certainly more likable than the man who might be better expected to be cast as the hero: Church Debunker Doyle, a former flame of Chess’s who wants to give their relationship a chance. He seems to be entirely on the right side of the law — and of the moral high ground — at his introduction. But, like the other characters, Doyle has more to him than just that surface image; it’s just that for Doyle, golden boy of the Church, the only thing those layers can reveal is tarnish. Terrible also seems more trustworthy than Lex, the good-looking enforcer for Bump’s competitor Slobag, who also comes to Chess’s aid — but whose motives seem at least shallow, if not questionable.
I’m not sure at this point in the series if Stacia’s making a commentary on the nature of faith and religion — of believing in what cannot be proved — or if she just had a great time developing a world in which belief is irrelevant. Either way, the result is a really solidly built setting — gritty where it should be, beautiful and terrible where it makes sense for it to be so. Chess’s world in particular is a world of seedy bars and drug houses, but her love for the place is palpable, and seeing “Downside” (as the lower class district is called) through her eyes reveals some appeal that even a suburbanite like myself can imagine. (I’ll admit, though, I wouldn’t want to visit in real life. Particularly not after dark.) The ghosts are, by turn, sympathetic (the brief appearance two air force pilots, in particular, seem to contradict the idea that every ghost is a threat) and keep-you-up-at-night terrifying. The real coup of world building, though, is the street cant, which sounds like it’s based on a Creole grammar. It works far better than slang to give a depth to the setting and provide a sense of place.
Unholy Ghosts is gritty, scary, and a brilliant entry into a well-developed and appealing (although seedy) new world. I’ve got the next two books of Chess’s adventures on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Downside.
Review by Alana Abbott