In a crowded genre like urban fantasy, authors have to strike a difficult balance. They need to adhere to the genre’s tropes and formulas closely enough that readers feel like they’re getting what they were looking for. On the other hand, there needs to be enough innovation that readers have a reason to read this book, this series, rather than one of the many others on the shelf.
In a nutshell, the trouble with Grave Witch is that it doesn’t stand out. I enjoyed reading it, but the spark that would distinguish it just isn’t there. Kalayna Price utilizes all the well-loved elements of urban fantasy, and Grave Witch hews closer to the influential early books of Laurell K. Hamilton than any other UF I’ve read. There are no vampires — I’ll give it that — but Price’s fae have a very similar role.
Alex Craft is a “grave witch,” which means she has necromantic powers, and she lives in a near-future version of our world in which the fae and witches have come out of the closet. She uses her magic to raise the shades of the dead and ask them questions. When her estranged sister asks for help, Alex becomes involved in the case of the governor’s murder, and soon discovers a terrible magic that simply isn’t possible according to the rules of magic as she knows them. Alex digs into the case, snooping around in classic amateur-detective fashion, all the while juggling romantic feelings for a gorgeous cop and an equally gorgeous Grim Reaper.
The plot is a suspenseful one and will hold your attention, but Grave Witch is not only too formulaic but also too dependent on Alex failing to notice crucial clues. (For example, when a woman who speaks English as a second language tells Alex that something is “genetic,” she quickly decides the woman means “generic” and that the language barrier is getting in the way. Meanwhile, astute readers are shouting through the pages, “Let’s see some genealogy!”) The climactic scene is another element that is reminiscent of Hamilton, and not in a good way; it’s the kind of magical battle that becomes muddy and hard to follow as the characters sling powers around.
I’m fascinated by the politics and history of Price’s world, though. There’s a big backstory involving the emergence of magic and the subsequent rise of prejudice against fae and witches; it’s only lightly explored here but hopefully will be further elaborated upon as the series continues. In addition, I liked Price’s fae, who are appropriately perilous.
Overall, I enjoyed Grave Witch but felt that it was a bit lacking in originality. I’m interested in seeing where this series goes; I’d like to see it branch out a little more from its influences.