Alastair Stone is an occult studies professor, working in obscurity on a subject that no one really takes seriously. He’s also a wizard.
The plot is powered by reluctant social obligation – Stone ends up with an apprentice he doesn’t really want, investigating a ghost he doesn’t really believe in, simply because it’s the polite and neighbourly thing to do. Similarly, the apprentice unlocks all kinds of trouble due to peer pressure. I’m not criticising that – it’s refreshing to read something that isn’t apocalyptic – but I thought it was an interesting choice. Most books revolve around a large conflict – the end of the world or a war with werewolves, for example. Stone and a Hard Place does get a high-stakes conflict, but it doesn’t start out that way.
It’s urban fantasy, joining a host of others at the moment with similar themes and characters. Alastair is dark and brooding, cut from the same cloth as Constantine, Dresden, Verus et al. In fairness to him, he does stand out in a couple of ways. He’s in a functioning relationship, for one thing, which is a rarity for a gene that is filled with lost loves (who are probably still secretly alive). He’s also, as a professor, rather less rough-and-ready than the standard unshaven sorcerer. Stone is calm and collected, generally taking the role of the most responsible character in a situation, not the loose cannon.
Magic in the book is relatively restrained, without much impact on society. Mages are powerful, but they tend to work in the shadows, hiding their powers. Wizard society is decentralised – new magic users are trained under a single master, rather than going to Hogwarts or meeting large numbers of other apprentices. Stone is, apparently, a particularly reclusive example of magical society, but the whole thing is kept very low key. Few people know about magic, even fewer are any good at it, and everyone seems to keep their day jobs.
Magic is never explained in that much detail – though the apprentice takes lessons, the actual mechanics of magic are skated over. There are rituals, with magic circles and creatures from beyond, but there are also moments where raw power is used, to move books and attack trespassers. I’d have liked a little more detail on the subject – unexplained magic can become something of a deus ex machina, for one thing, and for another thing, I just like understanding how everything works.
King doesn’t pull punches, which I appreciate – characters who by all rights should end up dead, do so. I was worried, arriving in certain sections of the book, that real problems and issues were going to be handwaved away in the cause of happy endings, but that isn’t the case. More books should have the courage to give actions proper consequences.
There’s something strange going on with the publishing. It doesn’t affect the quality of the book at all, but it was something that initially confused me when trying to get my hands on a copy. The second book is listed as coming out before the first. I don’t know whether the first was released with a different title earlier or something, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
Overall, Stone and a Hard Place is fine. It’ s a work of urban fantasy, with all that that entails. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first book in the genre, but if you are looking for something to scratch that specific Constantine-shaped itch, then Stone and a Hard Place will do.