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Review: Sacrifical Magic by Stacia Kane

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sacrificial Magic (Downside Ghosts, #4)Sacrificial Magic by Stacia Kane

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s funny how things can change over time. When I first encountered this world I liked it a lot, but I didn’t love it. It was wonderfully written and vividly portrayed, and I did like the characters. Well, they weren’t always so likable, but I did like reading about them! But initially I wasn’t completely enamored by the system of magic or the oppressive Church, or the language shift that the Downside people used, it just didn’t feel completely legit to me when I read the first book. l wasn’t sure it could all have happened in a short period of time. But now I’m a total convert. This world feels completely real to me from top to bottom, Kane has imagined and portrayed every single nuance in this book to perfection and it’s honestly just fantastic. She has that trick of making it seem effortless, every scene is so vivid and detailed without being belabored and overdone; it makes me feel like I’m walking down the dark streets in Chess’s shoes, not always such a comfortable feeling, let me tell you.

But Kane’s greatest skill is that while she writes lovely scenes and a terrific mystery full of fascinating magic, what she does best is that she grounds it in heartbreaking and totally identifiable emotion. I’ve noticed before in fantasy novels that it’s important for authors to strike a balance, if they have a lot of magic in one area then they need to ground the book in reality in another area to make things a bit relatable for the reader. So, for example, if the hero is magical being like a vampire or a werewolf then maybe the world he or she lives in will be one very much like ours. Or in this case, since the world is an alternate reality with ghosts and magic, and the mysteries that Chess, Terrible and Lex are solving are pretty wild and fantastic, Kane grounds the book with the emotional stories. The love story between Chess and Terrible is one that anyone could relate to, both the flush and joy of first love and the anxieties and insecurities that come with it. And then there are Chess’s personal struggles with her depression, anxieties and self-hatred, as expressed in so many ways, one of which is her drug use; this part of the story is just so deeply and achingly heartbreaking. Having these layers to the story is not only great literature, it also gives the fantastic and adventure elements of the story a strong foundation.

I’ve seen a few people say in their reviews about these books that Chess’s drug addiction makes them uncomfortable. But I think if you read these books you’ll see that there is nothing here that glorifies or promotes drug use in any way, shape, or form, in fact it’s certainly the opposite. It’s just a way too honest and painful exploration of how a functioning addict lives. It’s way more literary than most popular fiction is all, it’s more Oprah than romance novel on that level. Each book goes deeper and deeper into the experience and her history, how she got here and what the consequences are. It’s in no way taken lightly. I think maybe it’s easy for some people to judge and react harshly when they've never been there. I haven't either, but as a person with a chronic illness there have been times when I'm reading these books when I've sympathized, I have to tell you. There are times when I just want my chronic pain to go away, when I wonder what it would feel like if it took more than one pill or took it sooner than prescribed, wondered if I could actually stop hurting for just a few minutes. It's a slippery slope and it's easy to judge. And I guarantee you, when you read this book and you see what Chess suffered through and how she became and addict, your heart will break for her. You will judge a lot less.

OK, on to a few specific points about the book:

I just loved in the beginning how awkward she was in the scene with the other Debunker. She mentioned that she wasn’t the type of person who knew the right thing to say in the moment to reassure the other guy, like she was never the girl at the party who could come up with the witty remark, but was the one who thought of the funny thing to say later. It just felt so relatable to me, because aren’t most of us that gal?

I loved that Elder Griffin was getting married to another man! That was a surprise, the Church seems so conservative in so many ways. But it’s interesting too, I really like that layers of what the Church is and how it functions keeps being revealed and that it all holds together and makes sense. Kane really understands this world, she isn’t writing off the cuff, she has a plan for the characters and this world and it’s so fun to see it being revealed. I just hope that Elder Griffin, and his hubby-to-be, are both actually nice guys. I hate to be suspicious, but as a reader I’m always suspicious of everyone. He seems so sweet, I hope he really is. Chess needs someone in her corner.

Sexy scenes aren't really important to me in general, but I have to say that Kane writes good sexy scenes. She doesn't say any of the stupid cliche things. They’re original and much more real than most authors without being at all raunchy. She also taps into emotion at the same time.

It freaked me out to see that in her screwed up head Chess sees the drug use as not just as escape but also as a form of control, the one thing she can do to control her life, even though it really makes her life out of control and in the hands of Bump and Slowbag and Lex and everyone else.

I've come to really enjoy the quotes at the beginning of the chapters. They’re from various Church manuals about how people are supposed to live their lives. It really sets the tone for the world and the creepy nature of the Church. At first they seem sarcastic, because to us (modern people in 2012 or so) the Church will seem like an oppressive, totalitarian kind of government/religion. Except you have to remember that Chess really believes this stuff, it's part of the weird duality of her character. Not only does she feel safe and respected at work, but she actually does believe in the Church and the Truth.

The scene where Chess and Terrible have a huge fight was really tough to read. They both said things they were going to regret out of hurt feelings and temper, it was all too realistic. It was part of what I talked about above about emotional realism in this book. This scene was so completely real, it blew me away.

I love the way he loves her, it's for the right reasons despite all of her many flaws. They really love each other's minds and hearts. And the stories and mysteries in each book have really showcased them being able to see the best in each and worst in each other as they've solved the mysteries together. Their relationship is one of the most tender and well-developed that I’ve seen in urban fantasy.

I figured out one of the big secrets in the middle of the book. I’m not really complaining, authors need to give hints and it wasn’t obvious or anything. It was just one of those things where the character had to be in the book somewhere so I guessed and guessed right. It didn’t spoil anything.

I like the continuing relationship between Lex and Chess a well. Kane strikes the right balance emotionally with them, keeping a level of humor, light sexiness and friendliness that makes their ongoing connection make sense. And I like that it’s not really a love triangle, unlike the typical urban fantasy scene. There is a connection, there’s tension between Lex and Terrible that Lex uses to his advantage, Lex may even have some unresolved feelings for Chess, and she may even have a bit of attraction to her former lover, but she is not interested in him at all, she really is totally devoted to Terrible. It just feels like an honest situation between former lovers, the connection feels real. As usual from Kane.

Small spoiler comment here, not important overall, don't stress about it if you don't like spoilers: I like the relationship Chess is developing with Blue, it would be interesting to see how she would do with a female friend. And this would be have some interesting levels too since she’s Lex’s sister, and a pretty complex character on her own as well.

So, the end, that’s the big question, right? Without giving any spoilers, I’ll just say that it was super emotional. At one point I had my hand over my mouth, worried about what Chess was going to do. But to be completely honest, then there was a point where I did disengage a tiny bit and it didn't quite have the impact it was supposed to. Somehow the buildup just worked better than the actually finale for me. But I am glad about how it turned out, of course. Except for the big change in the end, that’s scary. Things are going to change in the next book, I’m worried. (Teaser, sorry!)

So, to try and sum things up a little bit, Chess’s emotional story, both the romance and the drug addiction, as well as her strength and bravery when it comes to doing her work and defending the people she cares about, adds tremendously to the fact that these books are serious novels with a lot of layers to explore, not just light adventures. They’re still a lot of fun to read, don’t get me wrong. The mysteries are exciting and interesting. It’s not going to depress you, I’m super sensitive to that, I hate dark and depressing books. The balance it terrific, it’s fun, exciting, thoughtful and smart writing with layers that will leave you thinking for a long time to come. I really recommend this book and this series.

**I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley.

View all my reviews


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