Title: Hard SpellAuthor: Justin Gustainis
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: July 2011
Reviewed by: Mark Chitty
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
Meet Stan Markowski of the Scranton PD’s Occult Crimes UnitI'm a little bit of a Justin Gustainis fan, and considering he writes urban fantasy that should tell you something if you know my tastes. I really enjoyed his first two Quincey Morris and Libby Chastain books (Black Magic Woman and Evil Ways), and then I heard that he was starting a new series for Angry Robot - it went straight to the top of my to-read list. And here it is, Hard Spell, a brand new book full of occult goodiness - or evilness, depending on your view of it. And did it measure up? A resounding YES!
“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 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.”
Stan Markowski is an officer in Scranton's Occult Crimes Unit, a unit that deals specifically with anything out of the norm and things that go bump in the night. In fact, the first pages of Hard Spell are a history lesson told by Markowski that brings you up to speed with the world as it is. This could easily fall into boring info-dumping, but Markowski's character shines through the words immediately, grabbing you and dragging you into this world where the strange co-exist with the not-so-strange. It works surprisingly well as an introduction to the novel, the history and to Stan himself.
As we join the action Stan is on a call out with his partner to a hold up at a store, by goblins. This scene takes up the first thirty or so pages and adds depth and character to that already established, gives us a good idea of the relationships between the OCU and regular police and also introduces a few characters we'll be seeing along the way. In all honesty, if you don't enjoy Hard Spell by the time this scene is over you probably won't come to like it, but if you do like what you read you're in for a treat as it goes from strength to strength.
There's all sorts on offer within the pages of Hard Spell, and it's all handled really well. I'm not a lover of urban fantasy and very, very rarely read it any more, but what Gustainis does is create core characters that are very likable and easy to read and puts them interesting situations. Above all that is a triumph, but he also includes all the occult stuff in such a way that is not off-putting, to me at least. It's accessible and has a fair amount of stuff grounded in reality, but also offer little treats and word-plays on conventional stuff - one example is SWAT, the Sacred Weapons and Tactics Unit (and they rock!).
Not all is spot on though, and I had one niggle while reading Hard Spell. One character, Rachel Proctor, plays a fairly significant role in the early stages and then (for reasons I won't go into here) disappears for a good chunk of the story. Now, this is all well and good considering the situation, but Markowski and his partner barely mention her for ages. It just feels slightly strange that considering the circumstances of her disappearance there is little acknowledgement of her or what happened. Ah well, a small bump in an otherwise smooth road.
I thoroughly enjoyed Hard Spell and it once again reaffirmed my trust in Justin Gustainis. I'll be reading anything and everything I can by him as and when it's published. Hard Spell is hugely entertaining, enjoyable and just downright awesome.