Lair of the Geek

Bringing you all the geek stuff

By Kalayna Price
Penguin £7.99
Review by David Stonehouse

Grave Witch is the opening novel in a new urban fantasy series centred around the adventures of Alexis Craft, and if you enjoy this one the sequel Grave Dance is hot on its heels with a February 2012 release.

Kalayna Price’s set up is a promising one: seventy years ago the magical areas of our world stopped being hidden and the Fae (a catch-all name for all the magical creatures you have ever heard of) now live amongst us. It’s a parallel reality to our world so in Alex’s present we have mobile phones, laptops and all the other gubbins of modern life existing side by side with magic circles, talking gargoyles and poisonous curses. The USA has four extra states that were previously hidden by magic and the novel is set in the previously glamoured Nekros City. It makes for an interesting playground. Magical folk live in their own areas and are shunned and feared by the ‘norms’ who populate the regular suburbs. There is a tension between the non-magical humans and the Fae which permeates the city’s politics. Alex Craft’s own father is a prominent politician in the Humans First Party and keen to distance himself from the embarrassment of his magical eldest daughter.

Magic takes many forms in Nekros City and characters who are magically adept specialise in particular branches of the supernatural arts. Alex is the Grave Witch of the title. Her abilities are to do with communicating with and channelling the dead and this is what gives the novel its startling opening. The dead can be summoned in two forms; ghosts, which retain their independent personalities, and shades, which are a sort of residual memory of who a person was at the moment of their death. Shades have no independent will and are unable to lie which means they could be called as witnesses in murder trials. As the novel opens Alex is setting legal precedent by putting a shade on the witness stand for the first time. Her visit to the morgue as preparation ends up calling up more than she bargained for and before she knows it Alex finds herself caught up in the hunt for a supernatural body-snatching serial killer.

Events rapidly spiral out of control. An attempt is made on Alex’s life and she only survives thanks to the timely intervention of none other than Death himself. If you’re expecting the Grim Reaper think again, in this world Death is definitely cool, handsome and chic in his designer jeans. Also along for the ride is a good looking supernatural Policeman, Falin Andrews, whose motives are worryingly ambiguous and a disgruntled ghost called Roy who refuses to leave her alone.

This is all Alex’s show, though. It’s a first person narrative and fortunately Miss Craft is very good company. She’s courageous and strong but also quirky and full of self doubt, all wrapped up in a witty and self-deprecating delivery. She’s a very likeable character and you root for her all the way. When she takes a battering, and she really does in places, the reader really does get emotionally involved. The great touch here is that the magic Alex has no choice but to use actually hurts her every time she dips into it.

The murder mystery plot is engaging and full of twists and turns. There’s plenty of grim and gruesome incident as the investigation becomes a race against time. Bodies start piling up and cryptic clues point to something very bad indeed about to happen. Characters have secrets, different factions pursue their own agendas and Alex has too little time to pull it all together and stop the monster in its tracks.

It’s a good job that Alex is so likeable and that mystery is compelling because apart from those two strengths the rest of it doesn’t hold up too well. There’s a feeling that the whole thing has been rushed together. The potentially brilliant set up of the outed Fae civilisations and the folded spaces they have revealed could have been given fascinating richness, history and depth. Instead the whole conceit is summed up perfunctorily in a couple of sentences. Layers of magic and the multi-faceted powers of different witches are hinted at but never properly explained. Characters are barely better than clichés (iffy love interest Andrews has long silver hair, obviously) and cardboard cut-outs who are only there to move the plot along. Also annoying is the fact that many incidents are so poorly sketched that you wonder why they were included. Andrews drives across town to see Alex, only to say nothing and leave again. During an undercover investigation at her father’s house Alex is captured by security and dragged into dad’s office only for him to do little more than frown at her and have her thrown out. Conversations are perfunctory and often don’t ring true. It seems as though Kaylana Price is scared the reader will get bored if she lets the pace drop but unfortunately this headlong storytelling doesn’t give the reader time to invest in and really care about anything. It’s a shame. There’s so much potential here but not enough book. Oddly, at 300 pages you’d expect a lot of story to get your teeth into but actually the font size is massive. You’ll find yourself wishing for smaller print and a lot more detail. The book’s ‘About the Author’ foreword notes Price’s studies into ancient mythologies and classical folklore. While this has clearly provided the core of her own mythology it would be nice to see it explained and explored in much greater depth.

All in all, Grave Witch is a solid but unremarkable addition to the rapidly growing urban fantasy genre and paves the way for plenty more adventures for Alex Craft. Price has created a literary environment with huge potential. Hopefully, as the series progresses, she will do a lot more than just scratch the surface of it.

One thought on “Grave Witch”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *