Laura Anne Gilman, Staying Dead (Luna Books, 2004)

Wren Valere has a pretty good life. She is gifted with a Talent; she's able to use magic, which serves her well in her job as a Retriever, or finder of lost things. Yes, she has to protect herself from those who would use her for their own purposes, and she has to be aware of her own internal balance in order keep her from overdosing on the power that defines who she is. But she always manages to strike a balance, and even makes a decent living while doing it. So when a not-so-typical case looks like a struggle between corporate power-brokers, high level mages and shady groups that seem bent on their own form of world protection, Wren has to decide which side to choose, a difficult thing to do for the Talented loner. But she's already got one person in her corner, as well as a demon that watches over her. How bad could it be?

The cover description of this novel led me to believe that the author would attempt to tack on a cutesy romance to her story. The fact that this novel was published by Luna Books "by arrangement with Harlequin Books" also fed my concern. Most of the novels I have come across that blend romance and fantasy are on the Discount Romance shelf at the local chain bookstore. And with a few exceptions (Charlaine Harris' hilarious and erotic Sookie Stackhouse novels, the Argeneau trilogy from Lynsay Sands), they're usually the same old "will they or won't they" bodice-rippers with a hint of witchcraft or the supernatural to try to make them stand out. I often feel that I've been shortchanged in some fashion; either there's not enough fantasy to make it a compelling read, or there's not, romance, to turn my head.

Not so with this novel. Laura Anne Gilman creates a world where magic is real, but still kept under wraps. She paints a vivid picture of a hidden, magical New York, and keeps fantasy in the forefront. Demons, angels and other fairy creatures, or Fatae, live there, but are mortal and face the dangers every other living creature has to contend with, including bigotry and hatred. And since magic is still a secret for most of the world, powerful shadow organizations operate under (above?) the radar, monitoring and oftentimes recruiting Talented individuals.

The explanation of magic is that it is a form of electricity, or "current", manipulation. Descriptions of the positives and the negatives of Talent are easy to understand, and can be quickly grasped while you move on with the story at hand.

Yes, there is the start of something big between the two lead characters, but Ms. Gilman manages to keep this particular form of character development from overwhelming the story. Perhaps she is able to add a romantic element while being attentive to the needs of the story because this novel is an introduction to a series. She can keep the romantic pace slow, since you'll be seeing these two in further installments. Keeping folks interested in the story, and making them believe the mythology she spins is the main point/

The downside? The two lead characters, Wren and her partner Sergei, seem like people from different worlds, yet their internal voices sound the same, at least in the beginning of the novel. It pulled me out of the story a bit when I heard a statement Wren was telling herself not a chapter before echoed in Sergei's brain. That kind of internal dialog sounded real coming from Wren, yet it seemed a bit too cutesy coming from Sergei. And while the novel weighs in at a healthy 344 pages, I would have liked a page or two that described Retrievers a bit more, especially since that is the title of this series. Right now, it seems like Wren is the only lone magic practitioner (or lonejack) out there who calls herself a Retriever. Maybe that will come in successive novels.

Ms. Gilman introduces other characters that I hope will get more time as this series progresses. Although she has created a compelling character in Wren and has developed an interesting relationship dynamic between the two lead characters, there are hints of other Talented individuals (Retrievers?) that could be worthy of their own novels. But what Wren will do after the dust of this case settles will be interesting to see.

And okay, Wren's next adventure aside, the "will they or won't they" is kind of killing me, too. Just a little.

[Denise Dutton]