Friday, January 24, 2014

Witch Hunt (Preternatural Affairs #1) by S. M. Reine

Cesar is a witch, a witch who investigates demons, other witches and any of the other magical things out there doing things they really shouldn’t. He’s doing well and seems to be on the fast track

Until he wakes up one morning to find a dead woman in his apartment – and absolutely no idea how she got there. The mundane, non-magical police naturally think he’s the one who did it. He waits for the magical people he works for to find the truth – only to find out that they, too, suspect him

Escaping  to prove his innocence seems to be the only choice – but as he follows the clues and hones in on the truth it becomes horrendously possible that maybe they’re all right. Maybe he’s guilty.

This book is a classic example of a good book 1. The introduction to a new series set in a world that the reader won’t be very familiar with (in this case, I am familiar because it’s the same world that is carried through all of S.M Reine’s books but this is from an entirely different angle from the previous books I’ve read. I actually love the way the different series come together, you don’t have to have read each series, but in reading them all you expand the world and context of all of them, adding a lot of texture), bringing in the main characters that I have a feeling are going to be with us for the whole series.

Where this book is a good book 1 rather than a merely solid one is that it didn’t let the introduction stand as a replacement for an actual interesting story. Not only that, but we didn’t even get a generic, decent-but-nothing-that-original story in book 1 that we often get (so readers can focus their brain power on the world and characters). This story is involved – it’s a story of investigation but, far more, it’s a story of betrayal and paranoia. Cesar needs to find out who framed him so he can clear his name and he needs to keep one step ahead of the powers that be – both magical and mundane – to remain free in order to do so (especially since the magical forces seem to have written him off and the mundane forces are clearly incapable of proving anything given the circumstances). But both of these vital, involved elements rest on a very shaky foundation – who can Cesar trust? There is, afterall, an apparent agent framing him – who could this be?

And this is where the book excels – because I honestly suspected EVERYONE. Even when Cesar trusted them I didn’t. Everyone was presented as a potential murderer and traitor – and that certainly includes Cesar himself. There are twists upon twists, suspect upon suspect and it’s truly shocking how many people seem to be the ones behind it – then maybe not – then back in the frame again. And yes, that includes Cesar. His memory loss, the witness statements and the very reality of what people claim he has done mean that, yes, there’s a very good chance Cesar may have been the killer himself. His attempts to prove himself innocent may, in fact, be just exposing his actual guilt.

The story is very action heavy, the investigation and cerebral elements rapidly overshot by having to flee another threat, or facing more confusion and danger. It’s very much an action book and it’s well written enough and visual enough to make that work and keep it exciting and flowing, making the story one to pull you in and hold you right to the end.

So, some bad points. Firstly, I like a lot of the characters in this book. I’m intrigued by the ambitious, aggressive and determined Suzy and love that she will be a regular character. I like Domingo, Cesar’s brother with his chequered past – and even dubious present but still loyal, affectionate and reliable to Cesar (and how often do you see brother-brother relationships in Urban Fantasy that aren’t fraught with betrayal, competition over the same love interest etc?). Isobel is a character with a lot of hidden depths shrouded in mystery that I really want to know more about – she’s not a deep character because of the lies she’s surrounded herself with makes her hard to pin down, but I want to.

And then there’s Cesar himself who… I’m not that sold on. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some elements I approve of – I like to see a male protagonist who isn’t ruthless or all about the big explosions and super powers – but it’d also be nice to see a male protagonist who doesn’t drool over every female character to come along. We didn’t need the endless descriptions of how sexy Suzy or Isobel or any other passing woman was, we didn’t need to have their bodies constantly described and when in life or death struggles, we really don’t need the literary equivalent of the slow camera pan. It is unnecessary, unprofessional, hardly makes Cesar endearing and derails an action packed battle for survival.

We have a lot of racial diversity in this book. Cesar and Domingo are both Latino and have an interesting and complex history with part of their culture coming through, but also lamenting that their Puerto Rican grandmother didn’t make a point of maintaining their culture, leaving them, as third generation migrants, with gaps. Isobel is Native American and, again, most of her character is shrouded in mystery – but she does play up the mystical POC woo-woo element: but it’s fake. She plays to it precisely because fools will fall for it and pay extra if she plays dress up in a fake ritual than if she uses her actual talent. Suzy is Asian and she is something of a Dragon Lady, but that only partially informs her character. Ultimately, she’s a professional, a perfectionist and a deeply practical woman – she’s also front and centre for main secondary character of the series.

There are no GBLT characters in this book – but we do have evil, predatory incubi (well, I think the book calls all incubi male succubae which just irks me) who make everyone (male and female) think terrifying sexy thoughts. Since we’re seeing this from Cesar’s point of view, we get a lot of disturbingly predatory male/male lust backed with a chorus of “I’m straight so straight, no homo no homo” which was less than ideal; it would have been better with a non-predatory GBLT character to balance, or if Cesar didn’t feel the need to so determinedly assert his straightness in a life and death situation.

This book has done the ideal job – I want to read this series. I want to see what happens next. I want to see this new investigation agency develop with Suzy and Cesar. I want to see Cesar develop a better voice beyond lust and Dresden Goggles. I want to see this world from this different angle both in  terms of storytelling and world building. In short, it’s hooked me – I’m in.