The world is not the way it was. The dead have risen, and the living are under attack. The powerful Church of Real Truth, in charge since the government fell, has sworn to reimburse citizens being harassed by the deceased.
Consequently, there are many false claims of hauntings from those hoping to profit. Enter Chess Putnam, a fully-tattooed witch, freewheeling Debunker, and ghost hunter. She’s got a real talent for nailing human liars and banishing the wicked dead. But she’s keeping a dark secret from the Church: a little drug problem that’s landed her in hot and dangerous water.
Chess owes a lot of money to a murderous drug lord named Bump. And Bump wants immediate payback. All Chess has to do is dispatch a very nasty species of undead from an old airport. But the job involves black magic, human sacrifice, a nefarious demonic creature, and crossing swords with enough wicked energy to wipe out a city of souls. Toss in lust for a rival gang leader and a dangerous attraction to Bump’s ruthless enforcer, and Chess begins to wonder if the rush is really worth it.
I tried this on the recommendation of someone I know has exceptional taste (she works in publishing), and I am very glad I took the chance with the series. It’s original, engaging, well-written, and has a great, well-rounded and interesting heroine. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.
At first, we’re presented with a pretty good introductory scene, as our heroine, Cesaria “Chess” Putnam, conducts a very difficult exorcism. Quite a lot of information and jargon is thrown at us, but it’s easily followed and engaging, and quickly digested.
We are quickly caught up with Chess’s life and the world in which she operates. Unholy Ghosts is set in an alternate future, which is very changed from our own reality. It turns out that, in 1997, an event called “Haunted Week” took place. During this time, the world’s ghosts rose from their graves, and wreaked havoc and death across the world. By the time it ended, only one third of the global population was left alive.
“[Chess] could only imagine what it must have been like, people huddled together in churches and homes and schools, praying and crying, while silent ghosts, risen from their graves, moved through the walls in search of them. Stealing their lives. Armed with knives and broken glass, armed with ropes and hatchets and razors, their blank faces impassive as they killed.”
In the wake of Haunted Week, the world saw a new Church rise as their salvation, an organization they owed their lives to, “the only group, the only religion, that had been able to control and defeat the ghosts.” They had been “a tiny group, devoted to the theory and study of magic.” Now, despite a “few grumpy splinter groups who attempted to rebel in their small, largely useless ways”, this Church of Truth runs the world. Naturally, the church as we know it became immediately obsolete and had been destroyed.
It wasn’t necessary anymore. Who wasted their lives believing in a god when the Church had proof of the afterlife on its side? When the Church knew how to harness magic and energy?
Later, Chess reflects on its demise again:
Through the mist loomed a blackened, craggy shape; the remnants of what had once been a church, one of the many destroyed by furious citizens when Haunted Week finally ended. The country was littered with these brick and granite corpses, silent testaments to a system of belief that had served mankind for centuries but ultimately proved as worthless and obsolete as a black-and-white television.
So. That’s the pretty interesting context. (There’s a lot more to it, but you’ll enjoy it more if you read it for yourselves.) With this in mind, Chess is a Church employee, who conducts exorcisms of ghosts who have either escaped from their underground city, or who have never managed to move on after their corporeal bodies died. She is also, unfortunately for her, also a junky. A junky with debts.
The man she owes, Bump, is your typical underground criminal. He also offers the occasion for one of the first, colorful introductions Chess gives us, as she walks through his rather ostentatious and gauche abode:
If Chess hadn’t known he was a drug dealer and pimp – among other things – this place would have told her in an instant. Everything was gilded or covered in fur, as though Bump had visited the Liberace Museum and decided to go it one better. Stylized paintings of guns and vaginas hung on the walls, turning the room from simply tacky to creepily Freudian in an instant.
Not that Bump would have heard of Freud. The Church kept a pretty tight grip on such things. But Chess had been allowed to study in the Archives, had spent months reading late into the night, every night. Gazing at Bump’s ode to the id she wondered if Freud was as full of shit as she’d always thought.
One of the things you’ll quickly realise while reading Unholy Ghosts, is that Kane has a real way with words, one that allows her to paint vivid descriptions and depictions of her characters, places and events. It makes for a riveting, fascinating world and story.
Bump convinces Chess to investigate what’s going on at a local airport, which he wants to use for drug importation. It seems like it may be haunted, which is bad for business. As he explains it himself, in the distinctive patois of Downside:
“Bump got the pull. Bump already got that place wide up, see, wide up. But Bump gotta problem. Bump’s planes—planes carrying them sweet pills you ladybirds like—Bump’s planes crash. Something attacking planes, dig? Make they go all silent. Turns they off.”
“I don’t know anything about planes. I’ve never even been in a—”
“Not planes, ladybird. Ghosts. Say Chester haunted. Don’t guess on that. Somebody sending signals, making planes silent. Electromagnetics and such, yay? You find sender. You find sender, you rid they.”
(This is basically how everyone from Downside speaks. It’s a bit like a stylized assumption of what “ghetto” might be, but it does not seem to be racially delineated.)
Naturally, nothing is as it seems, and while doing the job for Bump, in an attempt to wipe out a bogusly-inflated debt, she stumbles onto something so much bigger than a mere haunting or tampering by a rival criminal boss or gang. What Chess finds herself mixed up in is something so huge that it could upend the world order as they know it. Chess's investigation takes her to a number of interesting, spooky, and weird places; multiple colorful characters cross her path – from Bump and his main enforcer Terrible, to rival Asian gang member Lex (who has a thing for Chess and calls her “Tulip”), to her fellow exorcists Doyle and Randy at the Church, and a whole host of other characters, both good and evil. The novel is populated with fascinating characters. So many of them, that each one brings something intriguing and new to the plot.
Chess’s addictions are well-portrayed and deftly incorporated into the story. It’s a prominent part of the story – to count how many times she pops a “Cept” would have been near impossible – but it’s not hammered into our heads like a sermon or even glorification. The chemicals and substances coursing through her veins frequently hinder her ability to her job or even stay alive. I’m not entirely sure if her addiction was meant to be a cautionary tale or not, but Kane doesn’t hold back when showing us how bad Chess has got, especially when going through withdrawal (which doesn’t take long to kick in):
He didn’t pull out a weapon. Or rather, not a weapon that could hurt her. But nothing could have controlled her as effectively. Just as Bump had done, Lex produced a Baggie full of pills….
He tossed the Cept into the air, caught it. Tossed it again, missed. It hit the stone floor with a small ticking noise. Chess dove forward, but she was too late. His boot snapped down over the pill and ground it into powder. That was okay. If he would just leave… It wouldn’t be pretty, but the floor seemed reasonably clean, right? She didn’t know if they’d taken her cash as well as her knife. She could roll that bill up just fine, even with her stiff and aching hand. If he would leave, if he would please just leave.
I think my favourite character in the whole novel is Terrible. He does not entirely live up to his name. Not all the time, anyway – there is, after all, a reason he’s become one of the most feared people in Downside. He’s a great, sympathetic character, even if he is a bit cliché: he’s the violent, giant thug with a heart and depth just waiting to be discovered. Nevertheless, he’s a great character. And it’s great to get to know him as he is first assigned to watch Chess, and later comes to feel protective of her, and her him.
“Who taught you how to read?”
He shrugged like he wasn’t going to reply, then glanced at her. “Her name Lisa. Bump’s woman. Was Bump’s woman. This back when he took me in, dig. She liked me. Said I needed to know. Used to sit right next to me, wearin some low-cut slippy thing, making me sound out letters and write sentences.”
“Must have been quite encouraging.”
He grinned. “When I did right, she’d lean over and clap her hands, her top would fall open. I learned fast.”
“I bet you did.”
One of the things I’m always wary of in Urban Fantasy novels is how romance and relationships will be portrayed. In the case of Unholy Ghosts, I really liked that the relationships were portrayed in a believable way, and were not melodramatic or ridiculous: there’s no love-at-first-sight, no heaving beasts or orgasms-at-first-touch-of-a-non-erogenous-zone (one instance I read, I kid you not, the wrist…). In fact, Chess’s addictions end up messing up potential liaisons: one instance in particular, which left me feeling decidedly bad for the guy, who she completely offends as the chemicals in her system give her common sense and tact a holiday. In fact, Kane approaches the love and sexual aspects of her story in a refreshingly realistic way, and also, at times, a rather matter-of-fact way:
“She waited for that awkward moment she was used to, when it seemed most men forgot basic anatomical fact and attempted to insert themselves into her thigh…”
(In this encounter, she is more lucky than is apparently normal…)
Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was the fact that Kane focused on the horror aspect of ghosts, hauntings, and so forth. It’s not the main thrust of the novel, but the author has a gift for writing and setting up a sinister atmosphere. For example, Chapter 13, which totally gave me the willies… I really liked this. Helped elevate the novel above many other Urban Fantasies, in my opinion. All too often, the suspense of the supernatural is suborned for the sake of “romance” or action. Not here. More please.
I actually guessed who was the ultimate antagonist or puppet-master about 60% into the novel (there were a couple of things that were stressed a little too much to be inconsequential, and a couple of other plot points felt too much like red-herrings to me). Nevertheless, I was still hooked throughout the novel, eager to learn how the antagonist would be revealed and also what would happen to all of the characters by the end. And it’s quite the ending: we get some action, more horror, many more ghosts, more freaky hoodoo (to borrow Richard Kadrey’s word)… It is, overall, a very satisfying mix indeed. (If just a smidge rushed.)
Kane’s prose and story drew me in from the start, and continued to hold my attention until the very end. Unholy Ghosts is great fun, and it’s not at all hard to see how this series has made a splash on the scene. Expect more reviews of the Downside Ghosts series in the near future. It won’t be long before I want to delve back into the world…
Downside Ghosts Series: Finding Magic (eNovella, sadly not available in the UK), Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, City of Ghosts, Home (eShort), Sacrificial Magic, Chasing Magic
[A sixth book in the series is forthcoming; title and publication date still TBC.]