Unclean Spirits: Daniel Abraham takes on urban fantasy

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book review M.L.N. Hanover The Black Sun's Daughter: 1. Unclean SpiritsUnclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

Jayné Heller is feeling pretty alone in the world. She’s estranged from her intolerant family. She has just dropped out of college, and her friends have moved on without her. The only dependable person left in her life is her black-sheep uncle Eric … and he’s just been murdered.

When Jayné travels to Denver to settle Eric’s accounts, she learns two things:
1. Eric was filthy rich and left it all to her.
2. He was killed by Randolph Coin, an evil magician.
Jayné is not so sure she believes in this magic stuff, but she knows Coin and his goons are bad news, and she reassembles Eric’s evil-fighting team to deal with the situation.

M.L.N. Hanover does some interesting world-building here. In this universe, most supernatural nasties (vampires, werewolves, many magicians) are created by means of possession. A spirit from another plane, called a rider, takes over a human body and uses it for its own ends. Some characters see this through the lens of religion and think of it as demon possession; others come from a scientific background and view it as a parasitic relationship. It’s implied that both are valid ways of looking at it. There’s also a hint of Qabalistic cosmology that I found fascinating, and I hope to learn more about how it works as The Black Sun’s Daughter series continues.

As for Jayné’s new friends and colleagues, the characterization is a little thin. I loved Midian, and eventually grew to like another of the guys, but for the most part, they’re not as fleshed out as I’d have liked. I’m not sure how much of this is intentional. For example, there’s one character that I thought I was supposed to like, but I kept hoping Hanover would develop him a little more, because as it was, he reminded me of an ex-boyfriend of mine who was lying by omission about something really important. Turns out the character had a very similar secret, and so I wonder if I was picking up on an evasiveness that was intentionally written into the character. It may be that the characters who remain ciphers will turn out, later in the series, to be concealing big secrets.

The “let’s go kill Coin” plot is pretty simple and without twists. Also, it felt like the magic worked when it was convenient to the plot, and failed when that was convenient to the plot, rather than flowing naturally from the internal logic of Hanover’s universe.

The real story here, though, is Jayné’s growth from burnout to badass. I really liked her voice. Hanover did a great job of writing a young woman, filled with doubts and feeling adrift, then coming into her own.

Unclean Spirits is a quick, fun read. Jayné’s character development is compelling, and the humorous dialogue keeps things from getting too heavy. I look forward to Darker Angels.

~Kelly Lasiter

urban fantasy book review M.L.N. Hanover The Black Sun's Daughter: 1. Unclean SpiritsIn his short time as a published author, Daniel Abraham has displayed impressive range including his unique Asian-influenced fantasy series The Long Price Quartet, coauthoring a science fiction novel, penning an awarding-winning horror short story as well as an economic fairy tale, and tackling superheroes in both comic book and mosaic novel format. Now with Unclean Spirits, Daniel Abraham — under the pseudonym M.L.N. Hanover — takes on urban fantasy … with mixed results.

Unclean Spirits starts out impressively enough with a brief, but engaging, Introduction that offers readers a tantalizing glimpse into the world of riders — or ‘unclean spirits’ (spiritual parasites that have magical powers and take over peoples’ bodies) and continues to impress with Jayné’s (pronounced zha-nay) likeable narrative voice and spunky attitude, the story’s fast pacing, and some wonderful first impressions like Jayné’s first meeting with the 200-year-old cursed Midian Clark and a pulse-pounding encounter with a group of demon assassins. Unfortunately, after the main players — Aubrey, Ex and Choygi Jake — are introduced and the main plotline established, which involved taking out the leader of the Invisible College, Randolph Coin, the book starts to lose its luster.

For one, the plot involving the assassination of Randolph Coin is incredibly simplistic. In a nutshell, Coin is connected to a lot of bad stuff that has happened over the centuries — including Midian’s curse — and killing him “would undo everything it’s done in the physical world.” So with that in mind, Unclean Spirits mainly follows Jayné and her new colleagues as they try to come up with a plan to kill Coin and successfully execute that plan. That’s pretty much it. No clever misdirection, no shocking surprises, and no engaging subplots to complement the story.

Compounding the problem is a number of additional issues, one being the vastly underdeveloped and one-dimensional villains. Another is how little information is provided about riders, the Pleroma, the Invisible College and other supernatural aspects that show up in the book. Worst of all though is how the novel’s storyline and paranormal elements take a backseat to uninteresting television-like drama such as Jayné’s complicated attraction to Aubrey, Jayné’s identity/confidence crisis, Midian not being who he said he is, Ex’s responsibility issues and so on.

Now there’s nothing wrong with adding a little drama to a story. Every urban fantasy series has some, and it adds depth and personality to the characters. It’s just with this case, there was a bit too much drama going on and not enough story, action, and the paranormal. As a result, Unclean Spirits felt like one really long prologue or TV show pilot where not much happens aside from establishing characters and setting up a few basic plotlines to be continued.

So, between the novel’s energetic pacing, Jayné’s undeniable charm, and the intriguing concept behind the riders, Unclean Spirits is a solid entry in the urban fantasy genre. It is also a flawed entry with unrealized potential. But with a more even balance of drama, story and action, a greater emphasis on the paranormal, and perhaps a little more edge, I think the next Black Sun’s Daughter novel could be something special.

~Robert Thompson

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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One comment

  1. I need to check this out from the library. It gets very mixed reviews from my reading friends!

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