I reviewed the first book of the Downside series at Slacker Heroes this week. Here’s a taster – click through for the full version on the site. (Then go buy the book/s. They are amazing. Best series I’ve read in years).
“And the living prayed to their gods and begged for rescue from the armies of the dead, and there was no answer. For there are no gods.”
-The Book Of Truth, Origins, Article 12
Welcome to the church of Stacia Kane.
The old church fell apart years ago, when the dead started to rise and it turned out you did not want to be in that number. Brutal, sadistic murderous ghosts, regardless of how nice a Grandma they were when alive, ruined the theory of a fluffy afterlife and threatened everyone living. Governments and religion were powerless to stop them and the cities filled with the dead. Only a small cult could banish them, The Church of Real Truth, who quickly rose to power. Now the old churches lie in ruins, and the dead are (mostly) kept safely underground. Time to meet Chess, Terrible and get a punk-rock tour of Triumph City – trust me, it’s a tour worth taking.
Chess is a Debunker – she visits people who say they are haunted, even though the Church should be controlling all the ghosts. If they really do have ghoulish problems, Chess banishes the ghost and the Church pay the haunted a large sum of money as compensation. If they are faking it for the money, Chess will find them out and report them. I read the opening as a Kindle sample and the action kicked in on the first page, with Chess in trouble trying to banish a real ghost. Maybe she’d be in less trouble if she wasn’t hankering for her next fix of pills. I’d bought the rest of the book before the sample ended, because I was fascinated by this world and had to find out what happened next.
Chess’s pill-popping and her role working for the Church converge when her dealer, Bump, wants her to investigate a haunted airport for him. If she refuses he’ll raise the interest on her debts and make her addiction public knowledge, so she has no choice but to agree. Bump sends his main enforcer, Terrible, along to help/intimidate her. Terrible drives a black ‘69 Chevelle, has tattoos made with gunpowder and impeccable Stooges-Misfits-Sonics taste in music. Thus begins my favourite pairing of characters since, um, ever. Together they find dark sacrifices, bloody amulets and ghost soldiers, while Chess’s church work stirs up a demon only she can see and rumours that have even Church staff worried.
Chess’s drug habit and the itch for her next dose work as a great device to add tension; no one wants to be trapped in a rival drug gang’s HQ or attacked by hooded phantoms with teeth dripping blood, but going through that when you need a fix soon, and you can’t be sure that what you’re seeing is real – that’s tension. Attracted to the main beef in two rival drug lord’s gangs, both of whom are blackmailing you? Tension some more. Add to that that she’s supposed to be a good girl working for The Church and she’ll lose everything if they find out about her addiction – it’s fair to call Chess’s life complicated.
Her drug use isn’t glamourised, instead it shows us her flaws, her vulnerabilities. It’s the things Chess is self-medicating to avoid – stability, relationships, a fridge with more than just beer in it – that she really needs, but she keeps herself in trouble instead. There are a few points in the series when I want to reach in and shake her, or stop her from messing things up some more, and it is this is that makes her such a strong character. When I cringe for her I relate to her, more than I would if she always knew what to do or didn’t get twisted into tight spots all the time. Chess is on the edge and could go either way – a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, and that makes you turn the pages faster as you worry about how she will make it to the end.
This is the first in the Downside series, and I raced through them all in a week. You can read the first five chapters for yourself here – I suggest you dig out your Ramones t-shirt, turn up the stereo and enjoy the ride