Review: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

Hard Spell 

Occult Crimes Investigation Unit #1

Written:  Justin Gustainis

Published: July 26, 2011

Publisher: Angry Robot

ISBN: 0857661159

Obtained via: Purchase (So long, Borders, we hardly knew ye!)

Blurb: (Reviewers note: This ‘blurb’ is a mash-up of the ones found on the author’s website and GoodReads.) 

Stan Markowski is a Detective Sergeant on the Scranton PD’s Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit.

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 Markowski. He carries a badge. Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.

In this “alternate universe,” supernatural creatures really exist, and everybody knows it. In Scranton, PA, when a “supe” breaks the law, they call Detective Sgt. Stan Markowski of the Occult Crimes Unit. Now somebody is murdering vampires in Scranton, and Stan learns that it’s all part of a renegade wizard’s ritual to gain ultimate power. Unless this evil magician can be stopped before the spell is completed, Bad Things Will Happen. Fortunately, when it comes to busting supes, Stan Markowski is one bad motherf**ker.

My Review: 

Justin Gustainis is a super-cool guy. He’s been recommended by the likes of Lilith Saintcrow, Charlaine Harris, Rob Thurman, and  Jim Butcher. He is the king of the cross-reference, the pop-culture allusion, the nerd-culture in-joke. He even had Mac, of Mac’s Pub Harry-Dresden’s-favorite-place-for-a-steak-sandwich fame, in a cameo in one of his books. (That would be Evil Ways.) In other words, I highly recommend that you get off your butt right this second, rush out (or to your computer) and give this guy’s work a try.

Still need convincing? Fine. Fine. Here’s the rest of my review.

Hard Spell is the first installment of a new series called Occult Crimes Investigation Unit series, henceforth known as OCIU because wow, what a mouthful! Stan Markowski is a detective with the OCIU in exotic Scranton, PA (*snerk*) and he’s having a bad day. He was recently widowed AND his partner was just killed by a drug-addicted goblin. Supernatural citizens of Scranton are turning up murdered, and there’s a truly Evil book missing that everyone refuses to talk about. The department’s white witch on staff has disappeared after a necromancy ritual gone wrong (which Stan feels responsible for), and a couple of jerky witch-hunters sniffing around after her. Oh, and did I mention that Stan is still not sure what to do with his estranged daughter, Christine – who also happens to be one of the vampires Stan hates most?

There’s a lot going on here, and though the story is fast-paced and gripping as hell (kind of literally, actually), there are some problems. First, there’s a bit of disjointedness in the beginning. The story of Stan’s partner Paul being killed by the goblins is interesting and is a great introduction to the world. However, since it happened seven week before the rest of the plot, I’m still trying to figure out where it fits with the story. Gustainis’ work is usually much tighter than this, so I was a little shocked at how out-of-place this seems. It is a pretty awesome scene, though, so I kind of can’t blame him for not cutting it.

Second – and this was a problem so big that it threw me right out of the story – is the copy-editing. The really, really terrible copy-editing. For the record, I read the mass market edition, so I don’t know if the same problems exist in the digital version. There are words that seem to be missing in places or the wrong word is used entirely. Those are big enough to notice but small enough to ignore if you have to do so. (Many, many books do this. It happens, and if you’re an habitual reader you get used to it.)

The scene I have the most problems with is Rachel’s necromancy ritual. First, she makes four forty-five degree “quarter” turns, and ends up facing back the way she started. (Those would need to be ninety degree turns, folks!) Then during her invocation of the elements, she calls upon fire twice and skips water all together. (I’m a Pisces, which is a water sign. Maybe I’m being too sensitive? Nah!) Anyone familiar enough with the paranormal to enjoy reading urban fantasy is going to remember that the four elements are NOT air, fire, fire, and earth!

Honestly, that scene alone would have made the book a wall-thumper IF this had not been written by Justin Gustainis. It was only my respect for his other work that made me grit my teeth, chalk it up to a bad copy-editor at a new publisher, and soldier on.

I’m glad I did, too. The integration of supernatural and mundane is pretty fascinating. How many urban fantasies do you remember with goblins? Stan is a flawed guy who often ends up doing all the wrong things for the right reasons. I also find the setting of Scranton, Pennsylvania kind of humorously intriguing. Why Scranton? Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful it’s not another New York-Los Angeles-New Orleans-Atlanta kind of story. And Kim Harrison already took the unique approach of using my hometown of Cincinnati. I’m just curious what the allure of Scranton was for the author. (Not for the characters, though, as that’s explained in the narrative.)

Bottom line? This story is at about 80% the quality of  the Quincy Morris series. It’s obvious that this world isn’t as “solid” to the author as that of the other. If you’re new to Gustainis, I recommend you start with Black Magic Woman instead. That said, I still think OCIU #1 is a worthwhile book. As the first in a new series with a new imprint, I’m willing to give it a break for now. I will definitely be catching the next one.

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