Title: Unclean Spirits
Author: M.L.N. Hanover
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: December 2008
Paperback: 357 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in The Black Sun’s Daughter series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: I had seen reviews for Unclean Spirits online for a while now, and really wanted to get a chance to read this book. With the recent release of book 2 in the series, Darker Angels, I thought it was time to finally get on board. So, when Simon & Schuster sent us review copies of both books, I was ecstatic!
Summary: (from amazon.com)
In a world where magic walks and demons ride, you can’t always play by the rules.
Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn’t quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it’s all hers — and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.
Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric’s heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means — magical or mundane — so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.
Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions — Aubrey, Eric’s devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities — Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she’ll have to learn the new rules fast — or break them completely….
Three nights before her twenty-third birthday, Jayné – pronounced “Zha-nay” (not Jane or Janey) – receives a bitter gift: her favorite uncle has passed away, bequeathing all his property to his favorite niece. A college dropout with no place to go and no motivation, this morbid news reaches Jayné at the perfect time in her life, though she’s hurt and shocked at the news of her Uncle Eric’s death. When she travels to Denver to meet with his lawyer, Jayné realizes that she’s inherited a whole lot more than she realized – not only has her Uncle Eric willed her unimaginable wealth and numerous properties around the globe, she also discovers that he made that fortune by his involvement in a supernatural world she never knew existed. Jayné learns that the human world is also pervaded by “Riders,” any manner of spirits that inhabit human hosts – namely, things that we know as lupines, vampires, demons, sidhe, and loa. And with this knowledge comes the kicker: Jayné’s uncle was murdered for his latest job, a planned hit on an evil sorcerer named Randolf Coin. With the help of her Uncle’s old allies, Jayné plans to finish what Eric started.
Unclean Spirits is an Urban Fantasy novel that relies heavily on genre tropes and cliches, but also creates a unique magical world with enough promise to make this the beginning of a series with some potential. M.L.N. Hanover is actually a pen name for renowned author Daniel Abraham of The Long Price Quartet fantasy series, as well as the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and nominee of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Unclean Spirits is Mr. Abraham’s first foray into the Urban Fantasy realm, and with a few reservations, it is a successful one.
In structure and style, Unclean Spirits is rather uniform as it stars a young, plucky, kick-ass female protagonist and is narrated in the first person. Jayné’s voice is engaging enough, if a bit familiar. In terms of characterization, Jayné is a likable enough heroine. Unlike the current trend of Urban Fantasy Chicks In Leather With Big Weapons, Jayné is more of a softie – she’s naive, she’s young, and while she does come to grips with some tough decisions in this book, she’s a far cry from the jaded hardasses that seem to dominate the genre. No, Jayné is vulnerable – she feels, she emotes, she cries. This, in itself, is incredibly refreshing. Though, with this wonderfully fresh characterization also comes some negatives. Jayné commits a number of TSTL (that’s “too stupid to live”) sins, the most egregious of which is her tendency to mindlessly put herself and her team into danger’s way for silly reasons (for example, going on dates the night before a big hit, going to the hospital to visit a fallen comrade when he’s clearly under surveillance). She’s also a bit of…well, a weakling. Jayné is revealed with these incredible hand-to-hand combat skills and magical abilities that she never knew she possessed, which are attributed to her Uncle Eric placing wards on her, unbeknownst to Jayné (although my personal theory is that her mysterious half-finished tattoo – which she has NO recollection of getting – has something to do with her powers and her Uncle as well…). She also inherits a massive fortune and has incredible assets at her fingertips, which simplifies things for her immensely. It’s all so incredibly fortunate and very convenient. I did like seeing Jayné grow from a burnout to a young woman with direction, but I can’t help but feel irritated with a character that has had so much so conveniently handed to her on a silver platter.
The other characters held a similar mix of endearing traits along with some irritation. The members of Jayné’s team were quirky, interesting, and entertaining. In particular, Ex (the ex-priest whom I suspect has a crush on Jayné), the cursed Midian Clark with his cooking fetish, and the stoically supportive Chogyi Jake were standout characters, each with their own eccentricities. I only wish more time was spent getting to know each of these men and revealing their backstories – though this does provide fodder for future books in the series. In contrast, however, not much at all is known about the villains in this novel, Mr. Randolf Coin in particular. These evil riders were, unfortunately, one-note boogeymen without any real exploration of their motivations or goals (other than the eternal quest for power, naturally). And, of course, there’s a romance amidst the drama and mystery. Jayné and one of her team members, an older man named Aubrey, quickly develop a mutual attraction. It’s a little too rushed and not really believable, especially in the midst of all the traumatic attacks and intricate plans, but both characters are likable enough. More intriguing to me, however, was the dynamic between Jayné and another teammate – the oddly protective Ex. There’s potential here, and I can only hope that Mr. Hanover taps this in future installments!
The greatest strength of Unclean Spirits, and the reason to stick with this series, however, lies in the strength of its writing and its intriguing supernatural world. As a book, this novel is simple, dedicated to the single goal of stopping the bad guys before it’s too late. Though the plotting isn’t complicated, Mr. Hanover writes with a speedy and engaging style that makes Unclean Spirits a tough book to put down. Even more compelling, however, is the fabulous new twist on common supernatural creatures and phenomena. The concept of “riders” or “unclean spirits” taking over and possessing human bodies in the manner of parasites is fascinating stuff, and raises intriguing questions. Are all riders evil? Why do they take over human bodies? What do they hope to accomplish with these possessions?
Despite some questionable characterizations and a simplistic plot, Unclean Spirits is a fast-paced, strong debut for a new, original Urban Fantasy series. There’s plenty of room for growth and many scintillating loose ends, and I for one, cannot wait to return to read more of Jayné as she and her friends take on Riders in future adventures.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
I flew into Denver on the second of August, three days before my twenty-third birthday. I had an overnight bag packed with three changes of clothes, the leather backpack I used for a purse, the jacket my last boyfriend hadn’t had the guts to come pick up from my apartment (it still smelled like him), my three-year-old laptop wrapped in a blanket, and a phone number for Uncle Eric’s lawyer. The area around the baggage carousel was thick with families and friends hugging one another and saying how long it had been and how much everyone had grown or shrunk or whatever. The wide metal blades weren’t about to offer up anything of mine, so I was just looking through the crowd for my alleged ride and trying not to make eye contact.
It took me a while to find him at the back of the crowd, his head shifting from side to side, looking for me. He had a legal pad in his hand with my name in handwritten letters — “JAYNE HELLER.” He was younger than I’d expected, maybe midthirties, and cuter. I shouldered my way through the happy mass of people, mentally applauding Uncle Eric’s taste.
“You’d be Aubrey?” I said.
“Jayné,” he said, pronouncing it Jane. It’s actually zha-nay, but that was a fight I’d given up. “Good. Great. I’m glad to meet you. Can I help you with your bags?”
“Pretty much covered on that one,” I said. “Thanks, though.”
He looked surprised, then shrugged it off.
“Right. I’m parked over on the first level. Let me at least get that one for you.”
I surrendered my three changes of clothes and followed.
“You’re going to be staying at Eric’s place?” Aubrey asked over his shoulder. “I have the keys. The lawyer said it would be okay to give them to you.”
“Keys to the kingdom,” I said, then, “Yes. I thought I’d save the money on a hotel. Doesn’t make sense not to, right?”
“Right,” Aubrey said with a smile that wanted badly to be comfortable but wasn’t.
I couldn’t blame the guy for being nervous. Christ only knew what Eric had told him about the family. Even the broad stroke of “My brother and sister-in-law don’t talk to me” would have been enough to make the guy tentative. Much less the full-on gay-hating, patriarch-in-the-house, know-your-place episode of Jerry Springer that had been my childhood. Calling Uncle Eric the black sheep of the family was like saying the surface of the sun was warmish. Or that I’d been a little tiny disappointment to them.
Aubrey drove a minivan, which was kind of cute. After he slung my lonely little bag into the back, we climbed in and drove out. The happy crowd of families and friends fell away behind us. I leaned against the window and looked up into the clear night sky. The moon was about halfway down from full. There weren’t many stars.
“So,” Aubrey said. “I’m sorry. About Eric. Were you two close?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or…maybe. I don’t know. Not close like he called me up to tell me about his day. He’d check in on me, make sure things weren’t too weird at home. He’d just show up sometimes, take me out to lunch or for ice cream or something cheesy like that. We always had to keep under my dad’s radar, so I figure he’d have come by more often if he could.”
Aubrey gunned the minivan, pulling us onto the highway.
“He protected me,” I said, soft enough that I didn’t think Aubrey would hear me, but he did.
“Myself,” I said.
You can read the full chapter and more online, using Simon & Schuster’s wonderful “Browse Inside” feature HERE.
Additional Thoughts: I absolutely love the cover for this book and for the next book in the series. Here’s the skinny on Darker Angels:
In the battle between good and evil, there’s no such thing as a fair fight.
When Jayné Heller’s uncle Eric died, she inherited a fortune beyond all her expectations — and a dangerous mission in a world she never knew existed. Reining in demons and supernatural foes is a formidable task, but thankfully Jayné has vast resources and loyal allies to rely on. She’ll need both to tackle a bodyswitching serial killer who’s taken up residence in New Orleans, a city rich in voodoo lore and dark magic.
Working alongside Karen Black, a highly confident and enigmatic ex-FBI agent, Jayné races to track down the demon’s next intended host. But the closer she gets, the more convinced she becomes that nothing in this beautiful, wounded city is exactly as it seems. When shocking secrets come to light, and jealousy and betrayal turn trusted friends into adversaries, Jayné will soon come face-to-face with an enemy that knows her all too well, and won’t rest until it has destroyed everything she loves most….
Verdict: A strong beginning to an intriguing Urban Fantasy series, Unclean Spirits introduces readers to a fascinating new supernatural world. M.L.N. Hanover’s debut novel in the genre teems with promise, and I am excited to see where the next book leads.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Blood Promise by Richelle Mead