Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review of the Week: Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

I really wish I didn't know M.L.N. Hanover was actually Daniel Abraham. Unclean Spirits was a birthday present and an apt one given my love for Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Looking at the cover we have all of the usual suspects for urban fantasy with a female lead. Scantily clad woman wielding a weapon? Check. Obligatory tattoo on said scantily clad woman? Check. Look at my tight and revealing ensemble pose? Check. Based on that, I expected to find a fairly paint by numbers urban fantasy novel. And if the author wasn't a favorite of mine masquerading under a pseudonym, that would have been just fine. I tend to be slightly less critical on debut authors. After all, they are just getting started and I have found several excellent series that started out with less than stellar opening volumes including the adventures of the only wizard listed in Chicago's phone book. I suspect this first book of The Black Sun's Daughter will likely fall into the same category. But knowing that this novel came from the author of The Long Price Quartet and the excellent The Dagger and the Coin series, I, perhaps unfairly, expected better.


Which is not to say that Unclean Spirits isn't a good book, because it definitely is. You just have to take a closer look to see discover how good it really is. On its face, the concept doesn't seem anything earth shattering but in true Abrahamian fashion, Hanover manages to make it somehow more than your father's urban fantasy story. If that's not enough to get your attention, it definitely should be.

Unclean Spirits is the story of Jayné Heller, who when settling the estate of her suddenly deceased uncle, finds herself thrust into a world that she doesn't understand. While she is the inheritor of her uncle's surprisingly vast fortune she also inherits his problems and, it seems, his occupation. And as an exterminator of those possessed by evil spirits that turn them into things out of nightmare, her deceased Uncle Eric's problems are extremely dangerous. Making things worse, her uncle's murderers have decided that anyone poised to inherit their greatest enemy's estate is a threat best eliminated. Jayné has to adapt to these shocking revelations quickly, or she'll never have the chance to enjoy or understand her strange inheritance.

Even looking at that synopsis, it isn't really obvious just how far from the urban fantasy norm Abraham is straying. He puts his own unique stamp on genre tropes is everywhere. His unifying explanation for the supernatural elements of the setting is a thing of pure genius. In essence every type of supernatural creature can be explained by a variation of the same possession mechanism. I have a strong suspicion that this ground level change in the common premise will lead to some very interesting world building, but sadly there seems little time for this as Abraham sets up the pieces of this inaugural tale. But in a first volume that is so expected as to be forgivable.

Another more subtle point is that our protagonist is actually quite different from that staple of urban fantasy that the cover art suggests.While she has some small protection granted to her as the heir to whatever supernatural gifts her uncle obviously possesses, Jayné has no idea how any of it works. In addition, she is caught completely unprepared for the circumstances the author hurls her into. This is a college drop out in water far over her head. Understandably, Jayné has almost no control over her own trajectory for at least the first two thirds of the novel. That lack of agency makes her a definite change from the Anitas, Harrys, and Mercys that seem to clog the genre. One might think that choice would lead to a boring protagonist, especially in the unsurprisingly first person narrative. But Abraham wisely makes Jayné likeable enough that her lack of aptitude is endearing and sympathetic rather than frustrating. Hints at her back story, including her unexplained exit from college and her adversarial relationship with her overbearing and parochial parents leave us with questions about Jayné that we want answers too.

The supporting cast is motley assortment of cliches turned on their heads and completely unexpected and refreshing choices. The stand out for me is Midian, the vampiresque epicurean who dispenses much needed world building while preparing meals that actually made me hungry as I read about them. As her uncle's last client Midian is much more than just one of Jayné's eventually band of merry men, but a potential antagonist whose goals only temprorarilly coincide with her own. Throw in a couple of decidedly ordinary folk who are pressed into service after Jayné narrowly manages to save them from the spirit that shoved the husband's mind into the family dog before possessing his body, and you are in for a wild ride. Abraham gives plenty of glimpses of potential for character depth and exploration, but most are not exploited to anything resembling the level of any of his other novels. We are often left seeing the ripples of something interesting in the undercurrents of the largely predictable plot, but very rarely does the author do anything other than tantalize.

My largest complaint with the characterization is that the villains of the piece, get an embarrassingly minuscule amount of development. Which is what leaves me hoping that Midian comes back in an antagonistic role. All of the baddies we meet are straight from central casting, including the big bad himself. When contrasted with the attention to detail we see in the Jayné and crew, it was terribly jarring. It seemed as if the author had no real intentions of these villains being anything more than glorified cannon fodder as he set up the characters he really wanted to write about.

The plot is full of the things you would expect in urban fantasy, increasingly difficult opposition as the heroes move up the pyramid of villainy, best described by Midian as something like Amway, but with possession, wounded allies, reversals of fortune, and victory through unexpected means. Its entertainingly familiar and the people going jumping through the hoops are fare more compelling than the hoops themselves. The pacing is tight, but leaves room for quieter character moments without ever dredging itself in seemingly needless tedium. Nothing to brag about per se, but definitely not unsatisfying either.

I'd say Unclean Spirits definitely has the ingredients to be a refreshing re-imagining of the urban fantasy genre, but it has yet to deliver on that potential. My personal opinion, a little more Abraham and a little less Hanover will go along way to establishing Jayné Heller as contender for membership in the heavyweight division beside the Dresdens and Blakes of the genre.

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