Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stacia Kane's City of Ghosts

One thing I've learned during the last 2+ years in school is the value of breaking down a novel in your genre to take a look at what works and what doesn't. Journaling this process has been an excellent way to absorb what each book has taught me about the craft and the art of writing. Unfortunately, more often than not, I feel uncomfortable posting what I've written on a public forum - even if I really enjoyed a book, I don't want my criticism sitting out there for someone else to read. What I found ridiculous in a book simply doesn't work for me and has no bearing on whether the author did something right or wrong.

However, when I find a book I truly love, one that engrosses me so completely that I forget to analyze it while I'm reading, I want the world to know about it.

Since Stacia Kane's Downside series - and most especially City of Ghosts - is one of those books, I decided to break down the novel here. I'll try to avoid spoilers and will white-out any text that might traipse too close to spoilage because I want everyone who enjoys urban fantasy to read these novels.

I have to confess, it's been a couple years since I read the first novel in this series, Unholy Ghosts, because Stacia was kind enough after I interviewed her here to offer me the read. I LOVED it. And because it was a pre-production version of the novel, I'm dying to read the version that went to print to see how they compare. I just haven't had the time and probably won't until I've graduated.

This series was released trilogy-style this summer, so they were available in rapid succession. That means y'all don't have to wait two years like I did to finish this first part of the Downside series. Lucky you!

A little background on the series for context:

The world Chess Putnam lives in is an alternate history, much like Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series (in which a tomato virus causes the preternatural beings in the world to make themselves known to humans) or Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books (in which the Japanese release of synthetic blood allows the vampire population to out itself). The supernatural elements of Chess's world aren't hidden from anyone. Before the turn of the century, Haunted Week happened, and angry, bloodthirsty ghosts rose from the ground and murdered a good number of the population. Only the Church was able to corral ghosts back into the city of the dead. Because they saved and continue to protect society, they are the world's only government entity, espousing Truth and Fact over superstition and even some soft science. They employ Debunkers, of which Chess is one, to investigate claims of hauntings, and will offer a payment to someone living with a dangerous ghost or will offer a bonus to the Debunker if s/he can prove the haunting is faked.

The power of this series comes from a few different points:
  1. The series uses urban fantasy tropes. Namely, there's a kick ass heroine with magical abilities (she's a Churchwitch, so she knows how to use magic to get rid of ghosts), there was past sexual trauma, the city she lives in has a personality all its own, especially the Downside area, and there are supernatural baddies to contend with (both ghosts and witches who prefer to work with dark magic).
  2. The series turns the genre on its side by making the tropes seem cliche. One of the biggies here is that the traumatic childhood Chess had didn't turn her into the kick-ass heroine of this series. Actually, it's part of the massive issues she still has and the gateway into drug abuse. Chess is a functional addict who, in spite of her need to numb herself against the world, still kicks ass. She's powerful not because of but in spite of her past and present problems. This is very atypical of urban fantasy.
  3. There is a good mystery built into each book, and it's a good representation of that noir/mystery branch of UF. But there's also some solid paranormal romance-style relationship building. Kane nails this romance as it builds over the trilogy probably in large part thanks to her history as a romance writer. But Chess's relationships go to some pretty dark places, especially where her addiction is concerned. The romance that builds is solid and (spoiler alert - highlight to see)though the trilogy ends with the promise for a happy ending at some point, there's still enough left in the air by the end of City of Ghosts to wonder just what Chess and Terrible are going to have to overcome to earn that HEA(end spoiler). The point is that some UF is solid noir-style and some is solid PR-style. The Downside books effectively combine both, so the mystery story question and the romance story question are both strong enough to keep the reader engaged.
  4. The personal stakes are pretty big - usually based on money until her life is in danger, and the chance that her addiction will be discovered by her employer - but there are bigger stakes, too. Only one book has put the fate of the world in immediate jeopardy, and that's City of Ghosts. But the stakes to life and limb of people Chess likes or cares about, or the stakes to her continued freedom have seemed big enough to make the stories break out.
So what are some of the issues with the series? Well, it's definitely dark. Darker than a lot of UF out there. And some folks might not like the drug problem for the simple reason that it's there. Chess isn't interested in overcoming her addiction, and by the end of book 3, it's not interfering enough in her life to force her hand. The drugs aren't glorified. In fact, in Unholy Magic there's enough horror around the drugs to ensure nobody could ever make that claim. But some readers will balk at the mere presence of that much narcotic in one book. This is more a marketing "problem" that isn't a problem at all - just a consideration for who will make up the audience of the book.

What I learned from this series that I can apply to my own writing:
  1. Slang and a certain style of speaking in dialogue can work if done well (residents of Downside have very distinctive dialogue, as do elders and goodies in the Church), and that dialogue will add another layer to the world.
  2. Less can be more. There aren't three hundred kinds of beings in this world. In fact, City of Ghosts is the first time we've seen a human being become something other than magically inclined - or not. There are psychopomps and ghosts, but they aren't characters. They're essential to the world but not integral to character growth and plot progression (except when used as tools by other characters).
  3. A magic system with elements that are identifiable to the reader seems to offer more of a believability anchor. There's still suspension of disbelief, but it doesn't require the reader to make quite as much effort to sign on with that magic. Kane based her magical system on British Traditional Witchcraft, so the magic used is at least recognizable if not familiar.
  4. Wide spacing of the major stages of intimacy across the books makes for (spoiler alert - highlight to read)a HOT love scene. It's much more powerful when you've really rooted for characters to hook up but had honest doubts about whether it would happen.(end spoiler)
If I write a series, I will definitely study the Downside series again to see how Kane makes the stories stand powerfully alone and yet turn the overarching story into one that's really captivating.


Donnell said...

KL. This was a fantastic breakdown and study of City of Ghosts. I confess UF is not something I ordinarily read, but I am reading a CPs now -- it's not terrifically dark though, so I find this intriguing. I guess I'll have to gt my hands on the book to understand the addiction. I'm wondering if the addiction makes her more kickass or is a hindrance. How does she use it and what is her message here, I wonder. Great post. Nice to see you using your graduate degree but saying hello ;)

KL Grady said...

Hey, D! The addiction is a great bit of conflict for her - is actually quite a weakness of her character that really starts to show more in the third book, when she's been taking it on the chin for quite some time. The message with the addiction? That this particular character has turned to drugs to deal with her past. It hasn't caught up with her. Yet. It's bound to, especially in the world Kane has concocted and the decisions Chess has had to make. Could seriously complicate matters for her if it comes to light in a later novel.