Deadly Spells is the third book in the Prospero’s War series. I wrote about the first two here and here. After the second review, the author responded to me on Twitter, which threw me for a loop; It surprises me when anyone at all reads what I write, let alone the writers I write about. I feel that they have much better things to do with their time.
Kate Prospero is a cop involved in a drug war, and the drug of choice is dirty, addictive, dangerous magic. As a member of the MEA, she investigates magic-related crimes in the city of Babylon. A cartel boss is dead, and a war between rival gangs looks set to tear the city apart. In order to find the killer before open warfare breaks out, Kate has to confront the various demons and darker sections of her past, as well as deal with the attention of an investigative reporter and the newly-elected mayor.
Everything good I said before about the first two books applies here – Deadly Spells is a sequel, and a faithful one, not a departure from the series in style or content. It’s a gritty crime novel with magical elements, and the same cast of characters (with additions and alterations). I’m not going to spend too much time focusing on the basics here, as anyone interested can follow the links above; rather than cover the same ground again, I’m going to talk mostly about what Deadly Spells does differently to the other books in the series.
In this third installment, Jaye Wells starts to expand the world further, moving away from just looking at the problems of one city and focusing on the bigger picture. Brazilian cartels come into play, the magical societies of other cities take an interest in the politics of Babylon. Minor characters start to get deeper backstories, and overall the whole concept gets more fleshed out.
That’s great – the basic concept of magic essentially being meth is an interesting one, and it’s good to see the series addressing some of the wider issues that that concept introduces. In this book, we start to see more how society at large reacts to the existence of magic – the use of clean and unclean potions, the way that magical adepts are viewed by mundane people. Jaye Wells spends time in this book exploring the setting, and it adds both depth and background to the world.
There’s also increasing depth in the relationships between characters. Wells has always focused on the personal life of her protagonist more than many other authors, but now Kate starts to get relationships that are deeper than previously. Romances develop, characters open up to each other, she even goes on dates. Again, this kind of growth for a character is good and necessary for a series not to stagnate. I’m pleased to see more detail and depth coming into relationships.
I’m still not a fan of Kate’s immediate family, and I’m not sure I’m ever going to be. In books two and three, her younger brother and neighbour display a total lack of basic common sense and empathy. In my previous review, I said that they stretched the bounds of credulity, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair, just quicker than the actual idea.
Essentially, I can well believe that people who behave as they do exist – I’ve met various of them, it’s not outside the bounds of possibility, etc. I’m not even objecting to their inclusion in the story; not every character needs to be nice and pleasant, and narratives need conflict. My problem with them is that they aren’t presented as negative characters. They’re presented as her support group, her family, the people she relies upon. And they’re awful. They don’t fill the role that they are being written as, and Kate doesn’t treat them in a way that seems reasonable in response to their behaviour. At best, Kate Prospero’s friends and family are a weight that drags her down. At worst, they’re actively against almost everything she stands for. They give drugs to recovering addicts, consort with her enemies and lie to her.
One of the major ideas in the novel is how Kate balances her personal and professional lives, and the conflicts between them, so obviously she’s not going to just ditch them, but there is an ocean of options between deserting them and applauding them. She’s otherwise a tough, no-nonsense cop who’s prepared to burn bridges if necessary – she shouldn’t be putting up with this so meekly.
That’s what strains the bounds of credulity – not that she has friends and family, not that they’re like that , but that she puts up with them. She treats them as slightly-exasperating but good people, and the books seems to expect us to do too. Throughout, they’re presented as lovable and almost as comic relief to the war on the streets, which is jarring: looking at their actual role, ,they shouldn’t be so kindly treated or presented.
Other than that sparse handful of false notes though, the characterisation is strong. Off-hand, I can’t think of a single character introduced in a previous book who doesn’t get some kind of development, even those who previously occupied a very minor role. Hints are dropped of issues that will hopefully come back in a later book. Again, Deadly Spells is expanding on ideas, creating a more fleshed-out world, and that is more than fine with me.
After a rather more magically-focused second book, the third book is definitely more crime fiction than fantasy – the magical elements are present, certainly (even, if anything, more impressive and grandiose.), but their removal wouldn’t harm the core of the novel as it would have done with the second one: the crime and its solution don’t depend upon mystical means. Were the magical moments to be removed, or replaced with technological equivalents, the book wouldn’t suffer. Deadly Spells is a story about a crime, not a story about magic – it just happens to have a more interesting setting than most.
None of the books in the series so far have been particularly fast-paced; they’re focused on the police, and the police have to follow the rules. Essentially, Deadly Spells is a police procedural – not an action film or an epic quest. This is not a book to read if you like “shoot first” protagonists, and it will take a little focus to get into the swing of it.
The main thing I like about Deadly Spells, and the entire series, is that Jaye Wells has thought through the concept – magic isn’t just handwaved away, or awkwardly shoehorned in. Instead, magic’s existence is used for a jumping-off point for stories that take the concept of magic as a fact, and try and work out how that would affect society. At some point, the author clearly sat down and worked through how mankind would react to a magical revelation, and the result is Prospero’s War. Magic isn’t tacked on at all, it’s integrated into the plot and the setting. The magic doesn’t fight or dodge the plot – even with potions and powers, people are still people, and the same crimes happen for the same reasons. Magic just affects the way that those crimes are committed.
To sum up, this is a decent continuation of the series, with the same positives. It’s also the book where Jaye Wells starts to really delve into the background and expand the series from a rather narrow focus to look at the bigger picture, introducing more complexity and detail to the characters and setting. As with the second, it’s not a quick-fix book, but it is worth spending the time on.
Buy it here.