Lair of the Geek

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By Devon Monk Penguin £7.99
Review By: David Stonehouse

Urban Fantasy must be one of the fastest growing genres in literature at the moment with what seems to be shelves of books being released every month. Some of these are brilliant gem, jam-packed with originality and imagination but unfortunately there’s quite a lot of substandard fare out there as well. There’s a lot of clichéd characters, by-numbers plotting and lazy writing to hunt through before you find something special. So along comes (the memorably named) Devon Monk’s Magic in the Blood, the opening novel in a series of adventures for magic Hound Allie Beckstrom. Which is it going to be? Treasure or turkey?

Things don’t begin too promisingly. We’re in modern day Portland, Oregon, but magic is an accepted part of everyday life. There’s no explanation of why or how. It just is. Deal with it. We have a heroine and, surprise surprise, she’s a rich girl with family issues who looks like an angsty supermodel. The plot seems muddy and confusing because, straight out the box, there’s a hell of a lot going on. Allie is being haunted by her dead father, the police are looking for some missing girls, there’s an angry mobster, a gang of lowlife magic investigators and plenty more besides.

After reading the first couple of paragraphs of this review you’ve probably not got very high hopes for Magic in the Blood, and after the first few chapters I was fully expecting to give this book a mauling but, fortunately, first impressions are not always fair or accurate. In actual fact Devon Monk has used the genre rules to create something which is clever, complex and, above all, enormous fun.

The plot which seems so messy to start with is actually a great big tangle of threads which are all important in the unfolding mystery. The reader is wrong-footed from the start. Is it a ghost story? A gangster crime romp? A kidnapping mystery? We’re supposed to be confused because this is Allie’s story and we get to share her bewilderment as all hell breaks loose around her.

Our heroine, Allie Beckstrom, is the magic ingredient here. She’s our first person narrator and while, yes, she is a cliché, she is a beautifully drawn one. She has already been damaged by a previous investigation that left her in a coma and with holes in her memory. We feel her frustration as she struggles to fit back into her life. Even her relationship with her mysterious and super cool boyfriend Zayvion Jones is a tantalising puzzle. Allie’s father was the mega-rich owner of an business empire based on controlling and managing magic. He’s dead but that doesn’t stop him mithering his daughter. Magical abilities clearly run in the family and Allie’s particular skills allow her to work as a ‘Hound’, a sort of magical investigator who can unravel magic spells and trace them back to the person who cast them. There’s a small community of Hounds in the city led by on old master called Martin Pike. They are a sorry little bunch who need to look out for each other because magic takes its toll on anyone who uses it. Every spell causes the caster physical pain and the Hounds cope with whatever helps, be it drink, drugs or painkillers.

Allie is recruited to help with a police investigation by Stott, a detective who specialises in magical crimes. Some girls have gone missing and he needs a Hound to investigate the magical signatures left at the crime scenes. Before too long it’s obvious that Allie is deep into something very nasty. Monk builds her mystery very well. Little details become important as the tangled mess unravels and she is confident enough to play with the reader’s expectations and throw in a number of clever twists as the mystery unfolds towards the unexpected conclusion.

Monk’s characters are all well created. Allie and the other leads are given believable depth and their interactions feel very real and natural even when events have gone deep into the realms of fantasy. Even the minor characters have a bit of substance. A good example are the police double act of Detectives Love and Payne who ought to be little more than a twee joke but actually emerge as two distinct and very likeable personalities.

Wintry Portland also proves to be an ideal setting for this sort of mystery. The ever-present cold and drizzle is the perfect backdrop for the melancholy of the characters as they trawl through the city’s grimy magical underworld.

There’s a great deal to enjoy in Magic in the Blood. Devon Monk has created a very likeable heroine and a rich and varied cast of characters. The novel is a very satisfying read with a finale that doesn’t disappoint. What Monk has also done is leave more than enough interesting questions to make the reader want to come back and find out more about Allie and her world. The second novel Magic to the Bone is hot on the heels of the first and will be reviewed here very soon. If that adventure proves to be as much fun as this one we can expect to see a lot more of Devon Monk.

 

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