Unholy Ghosts is the first book in the Downside Ghosts sequence and introduces us to Chess Putnam. She lives in a world where Church and religion has been pushed aside in favour of the Church of Real Truth, because of an uprising by the undead in the form of ghosts. Chess is in the employ of the new Church, helping to judge whether complaints about haunting are true or not, since it has become lucrative business to try and con the Church. When Chess picks up a new case, she finds much more than she bargained for — especially when she also finds herself dealing with rival drug gangs and her dangerous attraction to her dealer’s ruthless enforcer.
Stacia Kane has written a tautly-paced, gripping and, above all, unique urban fantasy novel. The idea of a new world where ghosts can kill and where having the wrong tattoos brings a death sentence is brought to life with delicate touches in a prose that drives the story along.
Her heroine, Chess, is far from the usual kick-ass know-it-all. She has many foibles, the main one being her drug dependency, which weakens her at key moments and puts her in dangerous situations. It could be all too easy to decry Chess for her stupidity, but instead Kane writes her in such a way that you are able to empathise, if not to understand. In a literary genre that is crowded with supernatural beings and heroines who are joining the monsters, Chess stands out as being all too human.
As noted, the pacing is perfect — the mystery of what is happening with the Chester Airport (where Chess is investigating a possible haunting) slides into place piece by piece. Moments of pulse-pounding terror and excitement are followed up by quieter periods where the characters are built up into living, breathing, three-dimensional entities.
The world-building is also very strong, from the descriptions of the drugs that Chess relies on to the back alleys of Downside to the wonderfully quirky dialect of the Downside residents. By the time you close the last page, Downside feels like a real place — albeit one you definitely wouldn’t choose to visit after dark!
In fact, the only parts of the world building that are a little underdone are the magical rituals and power words that Kane employs, although the use of psychopomps — dogs and birds that escort the souls of ghosts to the City where they are all kept — is especially intriguing.
I’d also like to give praise to the secondary characters in the novel, especially, of course, Terrible and Lex, the two men who Chess is attracted to. Lex suffers from having less screentime and seems a little less interesting than Terrible, but both definitely play their part in making this novel entertaining. Oh, and the moments of intimacy are sexy as opposed to cringeworthy, which is always a bonus with this sort of book!
Stacia Kane has upped the stakes for all those writing in the urban fantasy genre — Unholy Ghosts is gripping and brilliant. I can’t wait to read the next.