Justin Gustainis: Hard Spell

In Scranton, PA, when the supes get out of hand, you call the Occult Crimes Unit. If you’re unlucky enough to need the night shift, you’ll get Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski. He’ll stake blood-addled vampires, put down rabid werewolves, or handle meth-addicted goblins, and go home after a job well done. And if he’s a little overzealous with the vampires once in a while, who cares? They’re supes, he’s a cop, and someone has to keep the streets clean.

But then he gets saddled with a new partner, the earnest-yet-dubious Karl Renfer. And together they bust a coven sacrificing women to a demon. Their next case involves a dead wizard and a missing tome of forbidden magic. And then there’s a string of dead vampires, all with runes carved into their corpses. And a witch who goes missing, hijacked by an angry ghost. It’s not a string of bad luck, it’s the far-flung elements of a case of Apocalyptic proportions. Someone out there is putting together a ritual that spells out very bad news for all involved. Now Markowski and Renfer have to turn over every rock in town, shake the supes out of a trees, and pray for a miracle.

The start of a new series, Hard Spell is clearly Gustainis’ take on police procedurals, albeit set in a world where supernaturals came out of the broom closet after World War 2. The concept is sound, as is the world building; an infodump near the beginning of the book gives us the casual overview of the past century or so in broad terms. It’s a little awkwardly placed, postponing the start of any real action for several pages, but we need the information sooner or later, so why not get it out of the way? Following that, there’s a rather episodic feel to the story, with our heroes working through several relatively routine matters (and Markowski’s first partner meeting a bad end at the hands of those above-mentioned goblins). It takes a while for the big picture to emerge; unlike some books where you know right away what sort of problem the hero’s going to face for the duration, this one lays plenty of groundwork. It draws you in with the minutiae and details, before slapping you with the goods. With secrets around every corner, unreliable witnesses, unsavory allies, and assorted other pitfalls, it’s hard to predict the outcome.

Unlike Gustainis’ other series, the Morris and Chastain books, this one doesn’t seem to feature as many blatant in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cameos from other literary protagonists. One might even think it stands alone. My general suspicion is that I wasn’t looking hard enough, and sharper readers might find what I did not.

As a series opener, this is a solidly enjoyable effort, and it’s clear that Gustainis plans to have fun with the setting. By the end of the story, he’s set up a status quo that’s ripe with dramatic potential. Supernatural police procedurals may not be a new thing by this point, but there’s clearly room for at least one more. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

(Angry Robot, 2011)

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