My rating: Outstanding adventure!
A volatile brew of magical alchemy, crime drama, and potential romance, this urban fantasy is a welcome change from the genre norms. Its premise of a “war on magic” really stands out among the other inter-species, supernatural conflicts in urban fantasy. Whether the methods used by law enforcement are any different or more effective than those used in the war on drugs doesn’t really matter – the comparison is still interesting. The world-building is convincing, the characters multi-dimensional, and the plot fast-paced right from the beginning.
The setting revolves around the slums of the city of Babylon on Lake Erie. Called the Cauldron, this neighborhood is home to magic addicts, the homeless, and the poor. “Dirty” magic, made on the streets and distributed as potions that purport to solve the same problems we use drugs to treat (Think you’re ugly? Get a vanity potion! Poor? Buy a greed potion. Need to win a bike race? Take a speed potion). “Clean” magic, dirty magic’s legal counterpart, works like legal medicines. People are divided into two generally antagonistic groups: Mundanes, who have no ability to cook potions or use magic and who usually end up the addicts, and Adepts, who have an affinity for magic and are able to use magic to cook, read, and transform potions. Magic use relies on alchemical processes.
Kate Prospero, scion of one of the three magical “covens,” whose real-world equivalent would be either gangs or mafia families, is now a law-abiding beat cop who never touches magic, for a very personal reason (the same reason she left her coven). She patrols the streets of the Cauldron, busting users and sellers of illegal “dirty magic.” She’s also ambitious, and when a special task force is formed to capture the mastermind behind a new potion that turns its victims into ravening, werewolf-like creatures, she jumps at the chance to play a more effective role in the war. Eventually, she runs into her old flame from her dirty magic cooking days, as he becomes a suspect in the case.
The “war on magic” approach makes this urban fantasy unique. The way magic is used to develop drugs is solidly realized and an intriguing change from most urban fantasies. No actual werewolves or vampires in this novel – instead, the monsters are all humans hopped up on magic.
Over the course of the novel, Kate is tested by her teammates, by her brother, by her enemies, and by her experiences – which allows her to grow and change. She’s stubborn and independent, determined and fierce. In dealing with her coworkers and her old flame/current enemy, she stands her ground, even when she loses arguments. Even if it takes a few knocks on the head, she is able to change her perceptions and opinions, making her dynamic. Supporting characters, including her new boss and her partner, are interesting and badass. The novel is populated with psychopaths, petty criminals, batty old ladies, badass cops, corrupted cops, recovering addicts, and oddball informants.
I especially enjoyed Kate’s struggle with her principles – she must choose between sticking to them, or going against them to fight criminals and save lives. My favorite story line, though, is the one about Kate and Volos (Volos being her childhood sweetheart and current enemy). He has made his way up in the world through bribery and magic. Kate can’t trust him, but needs his help. What makes this arc different from many others that have the same ingredients (long-ago lover-turned-enemy who must be trusted to an extent because s/he is the only one who can help the protagonist) is that it actually is quite difficult to determine how Volos really feels about Kate, and to figure out what his true motives are. Is he only motivated for profit, or does the charity work he’s doing mean something? Is he only out to protect his own interests, and how much is he willing to hurt Kate to get what he wants? It’s all very intriguing.
I highly recommend this one for urban fantasy fans who are looking for something a little different, but for all urban and contemporary fantasy fans. Also, fans of Ilona Andrews, Karen Chance, Patricia Briggs, and Eileen Wilks are sure to like this one.
*eARC via NetGalley
The Mercy Thompson series is one of my all-time favorite paranormal series. Mercy is a coyote shapeshifter with a magnificent ability to get into trouble. Good thing she’s good at getting out of it, too!
The crime-fighting element in the Kate Daniels series (beginning with Magic Bites) parallels Prospero’s work as a beat cop in Dirty Magic. Daniels lives in an alternate world where magic and technology exist together, but not at the same time. In waves, magic advances while technology retreats and vice versa. Lots of unusual characters and species in this series.
Like Kate Prospero in Dirty Magic, Cassie was raised by a mafia-like group – not magic dealers, but vampires. Cassie’s problems result from her special abilities – like seeing the future and communicating with ghosts. Everyone wants to control these powers, and by extension, Cassie.
Although Wilks’ Tempting Danger is focused on werewolves, Lily Yu’s position on the police force in a San Diego where magical and mundane exist together will recall both the setting and protagonist of Dirty Magic.