Dirty Magic by Jaye Wells – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the first novel in Jaye Wells’ new urban fantasy series from Orbit Books.
“One of the best urban fantasy novels I’ve read to date and also lacking any substantial PNR elements, which was a big plus. This is a police procedural through and through with some great urban fantasy elements mixed in. Highly recommended.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
I’ve only read one other Jaye Wells novel to date, the first in her Sabina Kane series: Red-Headed Stepchild (review). It was a pretty fun read and made me into a Jaye Wells fan. Soon after I finished reading that novel, which featured a pretty kick-ass female protagonist, I heard about Jaye’s upcoming series Prospero’s War and I got excited because it was going to feature another kick-ass female protagonist, someone who was a cop through and through this time, and that the book would also be a crime thriller to a degree. Crime thrillers + magic? Awesome I say. When I read the book, finally, last month, all my expectations were met, because it truly rocked. Kate Prospero was an interesting, three-dimensional and very likable protagonist. She faced some real challenges, and she met them head-on. She had real problems in her daily life and she tackled them to the best of her abilities. She never backed down and she was strong all throughout, refusing at every turn to be defined by the men around her, which was a huge bonus.
The setting of Dirty Magic is the city of Babylon, overrun with “dirty” magic that is propagated by the various gangs that seemingly run the city in defiance of the Babylon PD. Kate Prospero used to be a part of one of these gangs until she got her break and then she went on the straight and narrow, forgoing all kinds of magic because she was truly sickened by it and because of a trauma she suffered in those days. Now, she is an earnest cop making an honest but miserable living. And then comes her big break and she is suddenly seconded to a Magic Enforcement Agency task force operating in Babylon, which could just be her big ticket.
As mentioned in the pull quote at the top, this is an urban fantasy novel through and through with the key difference being that this is not paranormal romance at all. There are some… chaste scenes in the novel but that is it. No sex, no girls swooning over the guys, hopelessly and madly in love with each other or what else. Not that those things are “bad” per se, but they are such a big cliche in the genre that such things are accepted as a matter of course and in many ways an urban fantasy novel doesn’t feel complete without some romance and some sex. Which is absolutely not the case in Dirty Magic. Jaye Wells maintains her character’s agency by keeping her away from such plot elements and focuses on the story itself, the mystery of the new drug that is hitting the streets of Babylon and which threatens to tear apart the very fabric of the city’s social structure.
I loved Kate as a protagonist. She is smart, sexy, intelligence, and she faces real problems every time. She is single but is also the guardian for her younger brother, and the relationship between them often feels as if it is more mother-son than it is sister-brother. Taking care of an adolescent boy like him is a full-time job in itself, especially when he starts to want to experiment with magic, something that she certainly does not approve of, given their family history and her own vow. And speaking of, just as alcoholics have Alcoholics Anonymous, in Jaye’s new setting we have Arcane Anonymous, which functions in a similar manner for people who are looking to kick their magic addiction. If I recall correctly, the events in the novel take place just as Kate is about to hit her tenth anniversary of kicking that addiction. Pretty significant I say.
Kate is not the only character in the novel of course. Two of the main supporting cast members are John Volos and Special Agent Morales. John Volos is Kate’s former flame who has now apparently turned to the straight and narrow, having gotten out of the gang-slums at the same time as her. Morales on the other hand is the second-in-command of the MEA task-force that Kate has been seconded to. There are lots of hints in the novel that there is going to be a love triangle between these three characters and thankfully that never happens. Love triangles are such a damn cliche. All three characters are independent even though some of the plotlines have them crossover with each other one way or another. The fun part is in how well these two men contrast with each other with respect to Kate even though there is no romantic angle involved with respect to Kate. In a way, Jaye maintains the agency of both these male leads without leaving them to be subsumed under the oft-used romance element of urban fantasy novels. Now that is something that I can get well behind.
Plus, both are strong characters in their own right, doing what they can to keep people safe from the bad guys. Just their methods differ, though their attitudes could hardly be any more similar. I loved watching these two play off each other. It provided some really cool moments in the novel and it also helped break the tension of the events in the rest of the novel.
In many ways, it is also significant how balanced the cast of the novel, in terms of the gender of the characters involved. There is no skew towards either extreme, and we get both genders actively involved throughout the novel. That’s another thing that made me like the novel. It is nice to see characters of both genders treated equally, and with respect to boot. Not something that you see often, I’m afraid.
But it all comes down to the finale, the climax that Jaye spends the entire novel building up. From the start, this book is more high-stakes crime thriller with urban fantasy elements, and that is what the author plays up for the climax, where everything comes crashing down and we finally get the big showdown between the heroes and villains of this story. Plus we get some neat revelations about the events that have been plaguing Babylon for the last few days, and these revelations set up the sequel in a nice, natural way that doesn’t come across as cliched or anything. The climax, like the rest of the novel, is very fast-paced and unrelenting, just the way I wanted it to be. After spending most of the novel knee-deep in the various mysteries, things start to fall into place with clockwork precision and watching all of that unfold is just great.
More important than all of that however is that Kate Prospero finally comes to deal with her PTSD issues by the end of the climax. Using magic, dirty magic, led to a big tragedy in her life, and she’s been “sober” ever since. And it is an incident that haunts her to this day, so it was nice to see some closure in that regard in the end. I expected it and Jaye didn’t disappoint on that front at all.
From start to finish, Dirty Magic is one hell of a novel and certainly one of the best urban fantasy novels I’ve read to date, in the two short years that I’ve started reading into this genre. I certainly recommend it, because if you are not reading it, then you truly are missing out on some great fiction here.