Black Magic Woman
by Justin Gustainis
Solaris (January 29, 2008)
In the last five years or so, paranormal fantasies have flooded the marketplace—
Even someone who doesn't particularly read the subgenre can probably list half a dozen paranormal authors off-hand, and someone who does read it...well, listing them would take all day. Many of them are good; some of them are even very good. But there's enough dreck out there to cause you to look at any new entry to the field with considerable skepticism.
Well, here's an entry into the field that you don't have to be skeptical about.
Black Magic Woman is the first in a new series by relative newcomer Justin Gustainis, centering around an occult investigator named Quincey Morris. If you recognize the name, give yourself brownie points: Quincey Morris was a rich young American from Texas who appears in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, helping in the fight to destroy the Count, but dying in the last battle. Gustainis's Quincey Morris is the fictional great-grandson of Stoker's character, and follows in his ancestor's footsteps in the (more or less) here-and-now.
What begins as a simple assignment quickly turns into much more, which is hardly surprising given the genre. Quincey is hired to rid a family's house of a ghost that's been endangering them. He ropes in his friend, Libby Chastain, to help. She's a white witch whom he's worked with before, so it seems a simple enough matter. But once they start the job, it's immediately obvious that things are far worse than they'd imagined. The house itself isn't haunted after all. Instead, the family is under a curse, one that's mean and nasty and wants to take a serious bite out of them, and out of Quincey and Libby when they get in the way. And the curse has its roots in a vendetta that dates back to the Salem witch trials.
Libby is able to clamp the lid down on the curse for the time being, but it's quickly obvious that they've got to track down the source, or as soon as Libby relaxes her guard, it'll come back as strong as ever. Even worse for Quincey and Libby, the witch using the black magic to curse the family realizes this as well, and shifts her attack to them—
Woven throughout their investigation is a second storyline focused around Garth Van Dreenan, a South African detective from their Occult Crimes Bureau (which really exists, by the way). He's working with the FBI to track down a serial killer who's been abducting children and killing them in a manner similar to certain black magic murders in Africa. As they follow hot on the trail of the serial killer, they unwittingly follow a path that both mirrors and intertwines with that of Quincey and Libby. Both storylines come together explosively in the finale, wrapping up most of what they thought they were pursuing, but leaving enough to escape to pull the reader into the next story in the series.
The crossover from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files is obvious, but Quincey Morris is not a carbon copy of Harry Dresden. Quincey isn't magical and he doesn't have any supernatural gifts: he's not a psychic, a witch, a werewolf, or a vampire. All he is, really, is someone raised in a family used to dealing with such things. In many ways, this really does set him apart from much of the field, because he goes into the fray without any more advantage than most of us. Well, okay, he's a lot tougher. But everything out there in the mean, nasty world is just as dangerous for him as it would be for us.
That world is also one of the real strengths of what looks as if it will be a good series to follow. This is a world that's not all that far removed from our own—
This does a marvelous job of investing the reader emotionally in the story, something every writer strives to do. When Quincey and Libby go to what they think is a haunted house, we can sympathize. Whether we actually believe in ghosts in real life or not, we all know of "haunted" houses, and the stories of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist are fairly close at hand. Gustainis stages things in such a way that it feels as if there's a bit of secret history going on here—
One of the reasons why both the character and his world work so well is that Justin Gustainis isn't building on the same foundations that underlie so much of paranormal fantasy. All too often, they spring from the seeds planted by Laurell Hamilton or Anne Rice, or someone similar. Thus so much of this incarnation of dark fantasy tends to feel, well, incestuous. Or cannibalistic. But as Gustainis pointed out in a recent interview on the Dragon Page, while he's certainly influenced by modern paranormal writers, he actually goes back to the early occult investigators like Dr. John Silence and Jules de Grandin. So Black Magic Woman doesn't feel like a rehash of what I pulled off the bookstore shelf last week.
Black Magic Woman isn't without its flaws. Most of these center around the secondary plot. While this storyline is connected to the main story with Quincey and Libby, the connection feels very tenuous throughout most of the story. So it really feels as if you're going back and forth between two different novels. Garth Van Dreenan, the lead of this storyline, is a good character, although I felt he could be a little more sympathetic. But the FBI agent he works with is little more than a spear carrier for him. While Libby Chastain is in sort of the same position with Quincey, she doesn't feel the same way, since she's fleshed out a lot more, and is a lot more essential to that storyline. The FBI agent isn't. And the fact that his name escapes me (it's Fenton—
Actually, the entire secondary plot bothered me. It's important to the novel—
A few other minor things bugged me, such as Libby Chastain being a "white witch." Personally, I find it an old and tired concept that isn't necessary. The ties to the Salem witch trials were a little mundane as well. There are lots of other witchcraft connections—
I really liked Black Magic Woman. Despite the secondary storyline, I thought it was a marvelous book, certainly far above par for the first in a series from a relatively unknown author. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, Quincey is a great character, and the world is quite believable. All in all, a very good read, which bodes well for the series as a whole. With this novel, Justin Gustainis shows us he's definitely worth watching. If the next book (due out in December) follows the same lines (and isn't split by a weak secondary plot), it'll prove he really is something special. Frankly, I can't wait to see.