Esperanza is a supernatural adventure novel set in Ecuador. It has a lot to recommend it, even though I was ultimately disappointed.
Some of the problems have to do with marketing. Esperanza is blurbed as a “supernatural thriller.” The book is tense and suspenseful, but I was never scared by it. Also, it is clearly book one of a series, but the blurb does not make that clear. As it is, Esperanza doesn’t end, it just stops, which added to my frustration.
There’s a lot to like about Esperanza, like exciting action sequences and chase scenes. MacGregor plays with some interesting ideas about the afterlife and time-travel, including a riff on the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo states. Main character Tess, an FBI agent, has a Shirley MacLaine-style old-hippie mom and a bright, irreverent niece who provide some of the best dialogue in the book. The opening chapter, where Tess finds herself waiting for a bus in a small store high in the Ecuadoran Andes, with no clear memory of exactly how she got there, is very eerie. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver on this otherworldly promise.
Esperanza, where it turns out Tess is headed, is a small city high in the mountains. Esperanza exists not only in the physical realm but in a spiritual one as well, crossing many times and dimensions. It is the home of a tribe of marauding disembodied spirits, “hungry ghosts,” or, as they call themselves, brujos. Throughout the world there are millions of these hungry ghosts, souls of people newly died who cannot let go and move on. Throughout the world brujos can possess humans, and can kill them by causing cerebral hemorrhages, but they exist most of the time in a ghostly state. In Esperanza they can manifest or create physical forms, and a powerful female brujo Domenica (I am using the author’s convention of keeping the noun masculine instead of the more traditional bruja), plans to invade the city of Esperanza with her tribe and take over all the humans. Opposing the brujos are the light-chasers, who normally help souls cross over. Centuries ago the light-chasers routed the brujos in an epic battle in Esperanza, but over that time the brujos have grown in power. Tess and another North American traveler, Ian, are the light-chasers’ secret weapons in a way that is never actually explained. Domenica schemes to kill both Ian and Tess, neither of whom are exactly what they think they are when they first arrive in Esperanza. The action starts when they discover the truth of their own natures, which takes each of them on a geographical and temporal quest.
There are three big problems with the book. The most serious problem is simply that the love-story-across-time between Ian and Tess has no impact on the current struggle for Esperanza. The action that leads to the climactic battle scene in the city (all four paragraphs of it) is directed by a character who doesn’t even get face-time in the book, some woman who runs a blog about the brujos. Tess and Ian are interesting, but it doesn’t matter if they get together at the end of this book. The book is a weird amalgam of action-adventure books like Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger and the TV show Ghost Whisperer.
Another serious problem is the inconsistency of the brujo powers, especially the powers of a character named Wayra. Wayra is a shape-shifter and was a brujo until he changed sides five hundred years ago. Now he is, apparently, physically immortal. Whenever the situation seems impossible, Wayra uncloaks another special power to resolve the problem. Wayra can do anything — why, then, do we need Ian and Tess?
MacGregor also counts on previously intelligent characters behaving stupidly in order for the plot to work. In Esperanza there are animals that can sense the approach of a brujo in its energetic form. One of these is a parrot — but a secondary character conveniently ignores the parrot’s warning so that Domenica can possess her.
MacGregor obviously loves Ecuador, and the country is a different and exciting setting for an adventure. Her prose is smooth and with Maddie and Lauren, Tess’s niece and mother, she displays a keen ear for dialogue. I am rating this book fairly low, but I do intend to read Ghost Key, the next book. I think there is enough here to create an interesting series.