Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I imagine being a detective is difficult enough without specializing in the supernatural. It probably helps that in Justin Gustainis’ alternative world, the existence of supernatural beings from vampires to ghouls to witches has been public knowledge since after World War II. So at least you don’t run into the common problem of everyone thinking you’re crazy. Still, solving mysteries is difficult enough when you don’t have to worry about failure meaning the end of the world as we know it.
Hard Spell takes the path less travelled in urban fantasy and lets the supernatural out of the closet. In fact, Gustainis rewrites the twentieth century to include them, and this was a source of fascination and frustration to me. Fascination, because it means Gustainis—and therefore the reader—can have fun with the laws, precedents, and policies put in place to deal with supernatural threats and crimes. Frustration, because I can’t help but think that if we lived in a world where the supernatural had been more apparent since World War II, then it would somehow be even more different than the one Gustainis portrays. Markowski essentially lives in “Scranton, with monsters”. In alternative history, changing one thing should ripple forward in a wave, not a straight line. The world shouldn’t be “the same, with monsters”. It largely is though.
This one complain aside, Hard Spell is the fairly standard urban fantasy/mystery story. Instead of a hardboiled private investigator, the main character is a Scranton PD detective by the name of Stan Markowski. I really like Gustainis’ portrayal of Markowski and his colleagues. The first-person narration has that somewhat weary, wise-cracking tone one might expect from a detective novel, but Gustainis never overdoes it. Markowski has his biases and his problems, but he genuinely cares about people—even the supernatural ones—and he’s definitely a good cop. Most of the other cops Markowski works with are the same way. This is not a book full of stereotypes of the lazy cop, the racist cop, etc. Every character has their flaws—I found Markowski’s chauvinistic attitude difficult at times—but few of them are bad people. In fact, I would argue that Markowski is remarkably well-adjusted considering how much he has experienced.
A vampire-wizard wants to make himself invincible and able to walk in sunlight. To do this, he needs to sacrifice five vampires to a Sumerian god. The last of those vampires? Stan’s daughter. So aside from, you know, preventing the world from ending, Stan has a very personal stake in this conflict. So does his sometime-ally, Vollman, the local Big Vampire on Campus. Whereas Christine is the victim, her captor and would-be killer is Vollman’s own son. After centuries of trying to reconcile with his estranged offspring, Vollman has finally come to terms with the fact that his son has to die to save the world.
These parallel progeny-related plot points are cool, but not as cool as Stan’s vampire ally. Gustainis walks the middle ground between the happy-shiny vegetarian vampires of that other vampire novel and the dark and brooding, terrifying vampires of Buffy and Stoker and Rice. In general, I lean towards the latter when it comes to fulfilling my government-mandated quota of vampire fiction—but it’s good to know that some authors can do benign vampires well. Granted, Vollman isn’t necessarily a happy-go-lucky “I love humans” kind of guy—but he doesn’t have the same sinister, “I will turn on you at any moment” vibe that a lot of reluctant vampire–human team-ups do in other books. He is a potential antagonist but not necessarily a villain, and I like that.
These shades of grey pervade the mythology of Hard Spell. In addition to vampires that aren’t straight-up evil, Gustainis populates this world with black, grey, and white magic. Witchfinders don’t care about the difference, but the law does. Although magic and witchcraft is only a small part of this book, I enjoyed seeing the various gradations at work, from the grey necromancy that Rachel does at Stan’s request to the out-and-out black magic wielded by Sligo in his quest for apotheosis. In the end, Gustainis avoids the trap of making magic the solution to everything—though I do take issue with how some things are resolved.
Consider Karl’s fate: his injury is near-mortal, and will likely be fatal because the emergency response time at an abandoned pumping station in the middle of nowhere is terrible. Meanwhile, Christine is has only just survived her near-sacrifice at Sligo’s hands, but his use of silver prevents her from healing herself unless she feeds. So Stan, too weak to do much himself, gives Christine permission to feed on Karl and make him into a vampire. He gets not to die (well, he undies, I guess), and she lives (well, unlives). Sounds like a fair deal, right?
Judging from the voiceover-style epilogue we get, Karl doesn’t seem to mind this transition from life to unlife. So I suppose I’m getting outraged over nothing, but … I hate that Stan did that without even asking Karl. He already did it once, with Christine, and now Karl? This could become habit-forming, dude. It’s great that it turned out to be everything Karl had hoped for, but to do it without even asking for his go-ahead seems callous. One would think the Supernatural Crimes division would have some kind of vampiric-transformation clause in their contract, like an organ donor card—initial here if you’re OK with becoming the undead in the event you’re mortally wounded in the line of duty.
Similarly, I’m kind of disappointed that Kulick surrenders Rachel’s body in such a straightforward way. Rachel herself seemed convinced Kulick had a more sinister ulterior motive, but when Stan has no choice but to summon him, Kulick quickly fulfils his end of the deal with no compunctions. What’s up with that? In the best urban fantasy novels, nothing goes right for the protagonist. Here, he has a wizard/vampire and a wizard’s ghost going to bat for him. That’s called stacking the deck, Gustainis, and you’re supposed to do it for the bad guys. It’s no fun if the protagonist wins because he brings superior firepower. Stan didn’t even have much of a plan!
So I’m of two minds about this book. On one hand, it is an exciting adventure in the tradition of urban fantasy mysteries. On the other hand, the story, and in particular its resolution, lacks a certain complexity and sense of challenge that I need in my fiction. I wouldn’t call Hard Spell a great book, but it seems like the beginning of something good—something that could, hopefully, aspire to greatness. Until then … I mean, it has vampires and witches and hardboiled cops saving the world. That has to count for something.