John Levitt: Dog Days #3: Unleashed and #4: Play Dead

Jazz musician by trade, magician by nature, Mason is part of a secret society of so-called “practitioners,” people gifted with the ability to weave magic and influence the world around them. His knack for improvisation, and his omnipresent dog-who-isn’t-quite-a-dog, Lou, make him a natural, if reluctant, enforcer for the San Francisco practitioner community. Under the direction of his friend/boss Victor, he investigates and deals with rogue magic-users and other threats as they pop up. He may not always like laying down the law and taking care of dirty business, but he can’t seem to stay uninvolved. More often than not, his involvement leads to heartbreak and trouble.

Unleashed starts out with Mason and Victor tracking down an extradimensional predator which arrived on our world via a mysterious portal. It’s cunning, deadly, and one step ahead of them at all times. Worse, they soon realize that it’s not the only thing which came through the portal. Now Mason has to rescue a friend of his, long thought dead, from a nightmarish existence, and track down a shapeshifting killer. With a magical doppelganger on the loose, no one is safe and everyone is suspect, from Mason’s new girlfriend, to Mason himself. To solve this case, he’ll need to take horrifying risks and use his powers in ways he never expected.

In Play Dead, Mason is hired by a powerful newcomer to the San Francisco scene, a black practicioner who wants him to track down some missing information and the woman who stole it. With an untrustworthy employer on one side, and Victor urging him to play along for information, Mason’s caught right in the middle, convinced that the entire deal stinks. The further he gets, the more obvious it becomes that he’s just a pawn in a deadly, duplicitous game. Who’s telling the truth: Jessie, who wants to expose practitioner society to the outside world and stop hiding in the shadows, or Jackie, an environmental activist determined to save the world? Even if he does figure it out in time to prevent a grave disaster, it could cost him more than he ever expected to pay.

I love this series. Levitt has developed a number of aspects which help Mason’s world to stand out as memorable, exciting, and unpredictable. First, you have the magic system. In some ways, it’s all purpose. Every practitioner has his or her own style and preferred method of expression, though Mason is apparently quite unusual in his ability to cast on the fly through improvisational methods. The further along we get, the more we see how it manifests differently for each person, and how their individual paths can lead to a wide variety of ultimate ends. From pocket worlds to fireballs, trolls and fae to illusions, there’s a little something for everyone.

The magic is just part of the trappings, though. This entire series is built around a strong sense of atmosphere and setting. San Francisco lives and breathes in each scene, and Levitt plays with the scenic imagery to evocative results. You never forget where you are. You can feel the chill in the air or the rain on your shoulders. More important still is the music. Levitt, a musician himself (as part of the Procrastinistas) knows just how to make the jazz come alive. Whether Mason’s filling in with a group, noodling on his own, or weaving magic, he really embraces the rhythm in a way few authors can successfully duplicate. Apart from Emma Bull’s War For The Oaks, I haven’t seen too many truly authentic instances of music-in-urban fantasy, so it’s nice to see Levitt carry it like he does. (I expect I’ll think of a dozen more examples later, but that’s another story.)

The unpredictability is another major factor in why this series works as well as it does. Levitt’s a master of the sharp turn and fake-out. While you might be able to guess what Mason will do (he’s a typical hero, always ready to do the right, if stupid, thing) it’s a fair bet that everyone else is two or three steps ahead of him. In Unleashed, we’re treated to one “gotcha” moment after another, to the point where one heartbreaking moment hits with startling precision simply because Levitt’s conditioned us to expect certain things. On top of that, we see layers upon layers of duplicity and cunning, and yet it all makes sense in the end. Play Dead’s no better in that manner; poor Mason might understand when he’s being played, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows how or why. (Of course, when he gets called out for a certain vulnerability on his part, it’s a wholly satisfying moment simply because after four books, we’ve learned to recognize it, even if he hasn’t. . . .)

Credit as well for the supporting cast. Campbell, Mason’s ex-girlfriend, who’s still a constant presence and reliable ally. Lou, who steals the scene as often as he does the bacon. Victor and his boyfriend Timothy, who not only help to influence and advise Mason, but are a perfectly normal, non-stereotypical, don’t-mind-us, gay couple. Eli, Mason’s best friend and occasional infodump. And of course, all the bit players who come and go as needed.

Four books in, and this series continues to be pretty darned awesome. I suspect, however, that the curveball thrown at the end of Play Dead will have fans up in arms, eagerly awaiting the next installment, just to see where Levitt plans to take things. But when all is said and done, you can’t beat the Dog Days series for its atmospheric mixture of magic, music, mayhem, mysteries, and dogs who aren’t quite dogs. I’m never disappointed.

(Reviewer’s Note: Shortly after writing this review, I learned from the author that the chances of a fifth book in the series are extremely low. Partly, due to the publisher’s reluctance to pick up another installment, partly due to Levitt needing a break. This news doesn’t change my opinion of this series one bit: it’s still awesome and a great read. Looking at Play Dead as the end (temporary or permanent) of the series, it’s about as good a conclusion as one can hope for . . . and a lot kinder than Levitt had planned, apparently. I’ll cross my fingers that we see Mason and Lou return in the near future, somehow.)
(Ace, 2009 and 2011)

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