Published 2011 336 pages
Summary (from the book jacket)
Summary (from the book jacket)
Meet Stan Markowski of the Scranton PD’s Occult Crimes Unit
“Like the rest of America, Scranton’s got an uneasy ‘live and let unlive’ relationship with the supernatural. But when a vamp puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, that’s when they call me.
“My name’s Markowski. I carry a badge.
“Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets…”
Hard Spell is the first book in the new Occult Crimes Unit Investigation dark urban fantasy series from Justin Gustainis. Gustainis’ previous writing credits include the Morris and Chastain Investigation books – a fantasy series that mixes up crime investigation with the supernatural and reads like a modern day crime thriller. Hard Spell is a departure from the author’s established writing style, if not his usual subject matter. This tale of supernatural murder mystery is written in a pulpy, hardboiled style with protagonist Stan Markowski toughing it out as he investigates gruesome murder and supernatural misdeeds on the mean streets of Scranton.
Hard Spell is set in a world where the supernatural has been widely prevalent in America since the end of World War II. Apparently, the supernatural came back with the troops returning from Europe (a bit like some kind of STD that nobody admits to having and never gets treatment for) subsequent generations have accepted the existence of goblins, vampires, werewolves, wizards and witches with equanimity. The supernatural is legislated for with black magic and acts that would harm people being illegal and publishable by prison or death – otherwise there is pretty much a ‘live and let unlive’ attitude towards the supernatural and undead.
The story is told in first person by Stan, a police officer in the Occult Crimes division. World building is fairly minimal; readers are given a supernatural history primer in the first few pages before the plot kicks off with Stan’s first job (arresting goblins on meth) from there any other pertinent information is filled in by Stan during the course of his investigations. Stan is pretty much what you would expect for a hardboiled detective – he’s tough and hard edged, with no home life to speak of he lives only for the job, and his narrative style reflects that.
Once the scene is set, Hard Spell quickly drops readers straight into the action. The main plotline of the story involves a stolen book that contains the darkest black magic spells ever written. Using this book a magic practitioner could literally raise Hell on earth. The body count swiftly rises and gruesome murder is always just a few pages away. It is up to Stan to piece together the clues and track down the murderer before he can complete the evil spell. The story is consistently fast-paced and the plotting first rate. For urban fantasy fans looking for a grittier read, this book ticks most of the right boxes.
However, female readers may have cause for concern. The portrayal of female characters in Hard Spell is disappointing at best. All bar one of the women in this story seem to exist just to be rescued. If they were everyday citizens this wouldn’t be so surprising (Stan is a heroic police officer, it is his job to serve and protect people in trouble) but some of these women are members of his own police force. Even the only female member of the super-tough SWAT team had to be rescued by her male colleagues!
While I can except that Hard Spell is an intentionally male-orientated book and that the damsel in distress is a staple of the noir style, we shouldn’t forget that in noir those damsels were often femme fatales, and often more than capable of looking after themselves.
Poor female gender portrayal aside, Hard Spell is a highly enjoyable combination of hardboiled crime thriller and dark urban fantasy. It’s gritty, gruesome and greatly engrossing!
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