Lair of the Geek

Bringing you all the geek stuff

By Kalayna Price
Penguin £7.99
Review by David Stonehouse

Regular readers will recall that not very long ago I wrote a review of Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch, the opening adventure for her magical heroine Alexis Craft, and if so they’ll probably also remember that I wasn’t very impressed with it. So, here I am with Book Two determined to be fair and open-minded and give Alex Craft’s second outing a fair crack of the whip. I could have passed this novel on for someone else to have a look at but I’m glad I didn’t because Grave Dance is a much more satisfying read than its predecessor.

We’re back in Nekros city, one of the previously hidden magical places revealed when the Faerie world outed itself and a couple of months have gone past since the dramatic events that closed Alex’s last adventure. Alex’s specialist ‘grave witch’ powers have brought her out of the city to a crime scene on a floodplain where a severed foot has been discovered. Alex fails to find the rest of the body but stumbles on a hidden stash of even more grisly severed left feet and from there the hunt is on for a powerful supernatural serial killer.

The saving grace of the first book was Alexis Craft herself and our heroine remains the ace up Price’s sleeve here. She’s a very endearing creation full of dark wit and quirky character beats. Her ‘grave magic’ powers are as much a curse as a gift and using them leaves her temporarily blinded and physically weakened and it’s hard not to feel a fondness for her Wile E Coyote style perseverance despite the constant battering she gets. This time round Price builds on the abilities we saw before but adds in new layers of detail and exposition that give greater insight into who and what Alex really is and where her morbid magical gifts come from.

The unfolding mystery is another strength. This is a more complex, multilayered tangle than the first which twists and turns engrossingly towards an unexpected but satisfyingly logical solution. There’s also a lot more action this time, mixing exciting set-pieces with the more sedate mystery puzzling

For me there were two major problems with Grave Witch which thankfully have not been repeated in Grave Dance. Firstly, the supporting characters – even the love interest Falin Andrews and the soul collector Death – were unconvincing sketches that did little more than move the plot along. This time they are far more three dimensional and believable. In fact, Alex’s little group of friends and colleagues are all given colour and depth making them people you can care about and invest in. They’re a fun mix too, with Fay, witches and even a ghost and a gargoyle keeping her company.

 

The second big niggle was the world Price had created for Alex. The concept is so promising but in the first book the whole set up was thrown away in a few sentences of explanation. Not so here. In Grave Dance Kalayna Price’s creation comes to vivid life in all its complexity. It is easy to see how her passion for folklore and mythology has shaped the book with conventions dating back to mediaeval romances faithfully updated for the modern reader. The unfolded Faerie world is given more history. The various magical abilities that that people can be adept at are explored in more detail and you gain a greater understanding of what it means to be a grave witch, an enchanter or an abuser of the dangerous gray magic. The Fay are given politics and a culture of their own. They align themselves to Courts ruled by Kings and Queens and in the Faerie realms allegiances matter. The power of words, of debts and obligations governs everything. It’s a fascinating environment and hopefully one that will provide a backdrop for many more Alexis Craft adventures.

The unfolding investigation also allows Price to unleash a whole bestiary of mythological monsters. Down by the river Alex has a close shave with a Kelpie, a sort of man-eating water horse while less frightening are the house-proud Brownies Alex discovers looking after faerie homes when she accidentally inherits a magical castle of her own. On top of these the evil super-villain behind the severed feet is also using stolen souls to create constructs of magical monsters which seem to crop up wherever Alex goes and rip holes in the fabric of reality when she fights and kills them.

It’s these holes in the fabric of the universe that are the books real masterstroke. Apart from one brief visit to the Fay bar the first adventure was firmly stuck in the human world with only brief hints at the Faerie kingdoms beyond the magical gateways. This time round, Alex travels into the Faerie realms for surprise revelations and some dangerous encounters with Fay royalty on their own turf. The books final section, which is mostly set in the Faerie courts, is great fun, offering genuine surprises and excitement as well as plenty of surreal and nightmarish imagery.

I’m glad I gave Alexis Craft another chance. Grave Dance is a thoroughly enjoyable slice of Urban Fantasy fiction, brimming with ideas and driven by engaging characters. Kalayna Price clearly knows her mythology and has the smarts to spin something fresh and new out of ideas that are as old as storytelling itself. It’s just a shame that my recommendation is to start your Craft adventures with Grave Dance. You can pick up everything you need to know about what went before in the exposition in this book. Let’s hope that if Alex Craft returns again her future adventures will match the quality of this one rather than the misfiring first instalment which will probably end up being best thought of as a curiosity for the completist Craft fan.

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