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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Black Magic Woman" by Justin Gustainis

Official Justin Gustainis Website
Order “Black Magic WomanHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

For the most part I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve read from Solaris Books in their first year as a publisher and I think I’m going to like 2008’s roster even better especially with new releases from Gail Z. Martin, Jeffrey Thomas, Chris Roberson, the debut of Paul Kearney, et cetera. That said, you can’t expect to like every single title that a publisher puts out and unfortunately that’s the case with Justin Gustainis’Black Magic Woman”.

To be honest, not liking Mr. Gustainis’ book was a bit surprising. You see, “Black Magic Woman” is an urban fantasy novel—i.e. a contemporary setting, paranormal elements, mystery/thriller nuances—and I’m a huge fan of the subgenre so I was really looking forward to the book. Plus, all of the advance press that I’ve seen so far, from reviewers and authors (Jim Butcher, Lilith Saintcrow) alike, have been overwhelmingly positive, so why did the book fail to impress me? There are several reasons actually. For starters, “Black Magic Woman” just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Considering that urban fantasy is all the rage these days and there’s like one or two new series starting every month, there has to be something to differentiate your book from the competition and I just couldn’t find it in Justin’s novel. I’m particularly talking about the book’s supernatural aspects—vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, voodoo, demons…we’ve seen all this before countless times and the problem is that Mr. Gustainis does almost nothing to add to their mythos. I mean the vampires in the book can’t survive sunlight and are susceptible to crosses and holy water; werewolves change with the full moon and can be killed by silver bullets; white witches can’t use their magic to harm others; and so on. Now I understand that there’s only so much an author can do with such established mythology, but even a little bit of creativity can go a long way. For instance, I appreciated how the incubus & succubus was the same creature, and the Dracula angle was a nice touch, but sadly it just wasn’t enough.

Now as far as the rest of the book, it doesn’t get much better. Plot-wise, the story is annoyingly simple. Basically, Quincey Morris—supernatural investigator—is hired to investigate a haunting and calls in white witch Libby Chastain, who he’s worked with before, to help out on the case. Before long they learn that the family has been cursed by a black witch, a curse that goes back hundreds of years to the time of the Salem witch trials—which was actually covered in the book’s prologue—and the only way to break the curse is to find the witch. Meanwhile, South African Garth Van Dreenan, a member of the Occult Crimes Unit, has been brought in to work with FBI agent Dale Fenton to investigate a series of ghastly serial killings involving children and the removal of bodily organs. Not surprisingly, the two plotlines are tied together and ultimately lead our characters to a final showdown in—get this—Salem of all places. If that’s not corny enough, there’s also a Mulder & Scully relationship that Van Dreenan & Fenton have going on, while Quincey’s fear of snakes was foreshadowed so obviously that I couldn’t help but cringe. In short, the story was disappointingly predictable and straightforward, especially the climatic moments involving Van Dreenan, the serial killer, Quincey and the Black Witch, but at least the plot moved along at a great pace and there was plenty of supernatural action :)

So I’ve talked about the lack of originality and the weak plot, but what about the characters? Alas, the author fails to deliver in this area as well. First and foremost, where’s the development at? I mean, there’s not that many characters in the book to begin with—you have Quincey, Libby, Van Dreenan, Fenton, a few supporting roles—so it shouldn’t be too hard to give readers more than the bare bones we get, right!?! Heck, it seemed like some of the disposable villains were more interesting than the main characters. And isn’t “Black Magic Woman” subtitled ‘A Quincey Morris Supernatural Investigation’? Strangely, Quincey isn’t even the star of his own book! Instead, Van Dreenan has that honor with Libby a close second. For me, this was one of the biggest problems with “Black Magic Woman”. To date, there’s been one constant with every urban fantasy that I’ve read, either good or bad, and that’s been a strong leading character. Unfortunately, “Black Magic Woman” just doesn’t share that distinction.

Finally, I had a problem with some of the book’s dialogue and metaphors. Specifically, I found the cultural clashes between Van Dreenan & Fenton and Snake & Cecelia to be somewhat naïve & stereotyped, while the banter between Quincey & Libby felt forced rather than witty. Of course, the latter might have something to do with having recently read Mike Resnic and Charlie Huston who have set new standards for wordplay :) As far as the metaphors, I just thought they were a bit too simplistic and familiar. Lastly, I was extremely annoyed by how it seemed like the author ‘dumbed’ down the book in certain areas like explaining the meaning of modus operandi, defining what a fibula is, and why it’s a smart idea to change your license plates and drive on back roads if you want to avoid the cops. I mean seriously, give readers some credit…

If you’ve been reading Fantasy Book Critic you might notice that I’ve hardly written any negative reviews. Mainly it’s because I target books by authors that I’m personally a fan of or titles which I think I’m going to enjoy. Even when I come across the occasional book that I don’t like, I try to be as positive as I can when reviewing the novel. Regrettably, “Black Magic Woman” was a huge disappointment and I just had a hard time finding anything positive to say about the book. Simply put, “Black Magic Woman” was one of the worst urban fantasy novels that I’ve ever read, and readers would be advised to look elsewhere for their paranormal fix…

NOTE: Obviously, I’m just one person’s opinion, so for a different viewpoint, be sure to check out reviews of “Black Magic Woman” via
SciFiChick and LoveVampires. Also, note that the sequel “Evil Ways” is already scheduled for a January 2009 release.

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