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Issue #130 - June 2006

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Believing in Ghosts

By Juilet E. McKenna

The value of cover quotes is much debated. As a customer in a book shop, if I notice an author I like is praising a first novel by someone I’ve never heard of I’ll probably pick the book up for a closer look. So seeing that Kelley Armstrong enjoyed Touch the Dark by Karen Chance certainly catches my eye. The cover art is less likely to do that; a model in a skimpy dress with a pentagram tattooed between her shoulder blades doesn’t tell me much. But neither of these things is as important as the first page. That’s what makes the difference between my buying a book, or putting it back on the shelf. In Atlanta, Georgia, our heroine is looking at a computer screen showing her own obituary. Someone has broken into her office, scanned in the piece saying where and when she’ll die the next day, and set it as the wallpaper, all while she was at lunch. Yes, I definitely want to know more.

As Cassandra Palmer grabs her gun and leaves her office, preparing to run for her life — again — we get to know a good deal more about her. For a start, she can see ghosts. But that’s not what’s got her into trouble. She’s a psychic who was raised by Tony, a gangster vampire who killed her parents to make sure he got her talents all to himself. The only thing that saved her from being turned herself is that psychics are incredibly rare, and the last one the gangster brought over to the undead ended up psi-blind. Information is neatly balanced with action as we learn all this in quick, concise snatches while Cassie tries to make her getaway. She definitely doesn’t want to be taken back to Tony. Once she learned what he did to her parents, she worked with the police to bring down his non-supernatural criminal enterprises.

But she’s delayed by the ghosts who want to talk to her, including Portia, a persistent Southern Belle, and also by her need to let her roommate Tomas know she’s leaving. That proves to be her undoing, as Tony’s henchmen catch up with her at the club where Tomas works. Two things save her: the magical ward tattooed on her back, and a ghostly Confederate brigade enlisted by Portia. A bloodbath ensues, but for Cassie the horror of the attack isn’t as bad as the horror of being rescued. It turns out Tomas is a vampire as well. Only he’s working for another faction in this world’s supernatural politics. Cassie finds herself taken before the vampire senate as different interests stake their claim on her. Everyone’s keen to know what’s happening as established alliances and agreements are changing. A new order is coming but no one can quite see what it is.

Cassie isn’t about to wait passively in the midst of all this. She’s an intelligent, pro-active heroine, and though she’s human she has grown up in the supernatural world so we don’t have to linger through any hand-wringing or disbelief on her part. Well aware of the danger she’s in, she knows the value of keeping secrets, such as the fact that she can see and interact with ghosts; notably Billy Joe, the hapless cowboy-gambler who haunts her favorite necklace. He’s her ace in the hole. Because vampires don’t believe in ghosts. Nor do the mages, were-creatures and other denizens of this supernatural world. She soon turns this to her advantage.

Every writer in this kind of fiction needs to put their own spin on the classic creatures and myths, and Chance does this with an agreeable mix of the familiar and the unusual. As in many such books, a series of historical personages are revealed as vampires. Jack the Ripper and Rasputin make their familiar appearances while Cleopatra, Christopher Marlowe and the Man in the Iron Mask are original inclusions that pique the interest. Silver Circle mages come in more like Rambo than Gandalf: well-muscled with guns, grenades, magic daggers and a bandolier of holy water potions. There are Tinkerbell-like faeries with attitude, while supernaturals such as satyrs inevitably work in the sex industry. We learn that light elves are actually anarchists while dark elves do at least have rules. Interactions between all these creatures are governed by MAGIC, or the Metaphysical Alliance for Greater Interspecies Cooperation. The contrived nature of that acronym makes my toes curl, but I’m enjoying the book so I’ll pass swiftly over it. Besides, real-world organizations can come up with things just as cringe-worthy.

Cassie isn’t overly interested in MAGIC’s deliberations. She’s just aware that she’s in their Nevada HQ, which puts her within reach of Jimmy, the henchman of Tony’s who put that bomb in her parents’ car. Human or not, Cassie has certainly adopted the vampire’s code of taking revenge whenever possible. Only things don’t go to plan as dark mages of the Black Circle turn up. Now Cassie finds herself caught up in out of body experiences and nightmare visions of a kind she’s never experienced before. Her role in these events turns out to be far more central than anyone had guessed when only her psychic powers were in demand. Someone is trying to rewrite the rules of the game, past, present and future.

It is a complex plot, threatening to become confusing in a few places, but it is well-constructed with sound internal logic. The tale unfolds with a swiftness that will keep you reading until the various threads knit together and clarify matters before taking new twists and turns. Cassie is an engaging central character and the lesser players are well realized. In keeping with the now established characteristics of this sub-genre, the violence is graphic and bloody, though Chance stays on the right side of gratuitous for my taste. There’s also the sex we’ve come to expect, and here Chance does something that impresses me. Sex is explicitly tied to magical power, in a tradition going all the way back to the archetypes of maiden, mother and crone, and the sacred coupling of male and female. There’s the whole dark and sexy vampire vibe at work but Cassie isn’t just blithely seduced by that. Rather she uses her own sexuality in a deft negotiation of give and take of favors and information, wholly apt as she’s caught in such a potentially lethal situation.

Touch the Dark is a fast-paced, entertaining adventure in the best tradition of contemporary supernatural fiction with the added bonus of first-novel freshness. I look forward to seeing what Karen Chance does next.

Touch the Dark - Karen Chance - RoC - mass market paperback

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