Hard SpellBy Justin Gustainis
First published: July 2011 by Angry Robot Books
Series: Occult Crimes Unit Investigation #1
Read: 3 – 25 August 2011
Challenges: Mystery & Suspense Challenge #8
Review copy provided by the author
From the publisher
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 9 mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.
Lately I have read a few books with a supernatural theme and after not particularly enjoying any of them, I decided I'm not a fan. But that was before I read Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis. You won't find any sparkling vampires in Scranton, PA – these supes should not be taken lightly.
This gritty detective story is witty and suspenseful and full of memorable characters. I like how the supernatural element isn't the main focus of the book; it's just there and has been since World War II. Vampires and wizards and werewolves are a natural part of society, and despite their biological non-human traits, most of them actually feel quite human – except for the ones that are decidedly not. I wouldn't ever want to come face to face with one of Scranton's demons. I also love the clever way the "supes" appear in historical and pop culture references – anyone seen the musical "Bats"?
The main character is Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski with the Scranton PD's Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit. He's essentially a good guy who's had some bad things happen to him, and some of those things have made him less than fond of supernatural beings, vampires in particular. Markowski's a well-developed character with a history that unravels bit by bit, much like the mystery itself. I quickly warmed to his no-nonsense approach to everything from exorcists to dead bodies falling from the sky, while still obviously caring for the people close to him.
Despite the dark theme, the novel is dotted with humorous passages and witty one-liners, and I found myself frequently chuckling to myself. It's mostly the little things, like the fact that Markowski's ring tone is the theme from The Exorcist; or the matter-of-factness of Markowski's narrative voice: "It wasn't until we'd signed out and headed for home that one of us almost died."
The only criticism I have is that certain things felt a little too convenient. Those six pages Prescott had translated from the huge Opus Mago turned out to be exactly the pages containing the spell Markowski needed? Now, that's fortunate! Also, the novel contains a fair amount of blood and gore and graphic descriptions. I'm not too squeamish about these things myself, so I didn't really mind. But if you have a weak stomach you are hereby warned.
Book 2 in this series, Evil Dark, will be out in April 2012. I can't wait to get my hands on it!
Bottom line: Hard Spell is a gritty, yet witty urban fantasy mystery with a supernatural element that should be taken seriously.
- Hard Spell (2011)
- Evil Dark (2012)