Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Book Review | Unclean Spirits by M. L. N. Hanover

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Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn't quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it's all hers -- and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.

Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric's heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means -- magical or mundane -- so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.

Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions -- Aubrey, Eric's devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities -- Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she'll have to learn the new rules fast -- or break them completely....


If I had it in my power to mercy kill a single genre of fiction, I wouldn't hesitate. I'd put a bullet in paranormal romance, and dispose of its remains as rudely as possible.

Apropos of which: urban fantasy. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are typically tarred with the same broad brush, not least by me... but slowly, but surely, I'm coming around. It helps not one whit that urban fantasies often feature, in a prominent role, some strain of the paranormal romance, meanwhile paranormal romances, for their pointed part, tend to take place in contemporary urban environments with a fantastical twist.

Confusing the two is an easy mistake to make; a lazy one, I dare say. They attract at least a superficially similar readership. Yet in the current climate, with these specific sub-genres on the ascent - arguably at the exponential expense of all others in speculative fiction - clarity is king, and an understanding of what sets the aforementioned pair apart is more vital now than it's ever been.

Let me begin this review in earnest, then, with an assurance: that Unclean Spirits by M. L. N. Hanover is not - I repeat not - a paranormal romance novel, and people like me, who would sooner suffer through water torture than read such a thing, need not fear.

That said, there's a love triangle. But, crucially I think, the love triangle isn't the point, the whole point, and nothing but the point, so help me God. Hanover handles this tryst - between our heroine Jayné Heller, Aubrey, the magical parasitologist she falls for, and Kim, Aubrey's not-quite-ex-wife - with almost none of the angst and melodrama that commonly characterise such situations in paranormal romance novels, and indeed, it isn't even remotely near the core of the story, neither narratively nor emotionally.

Unclean Spirits is about a disillusioned college dropout whose oddball uncle leaves her the keys to the proverbial kingdom upon his untimely passing. Admittedly, his (and now hers) is a kingdom scourged by Riders, loupine, and vârkolak -- which is to say demons, werewolves and vampires, but "don't let it bug you. Taxonomy's always a bitch," (p.152) isn't it?

In any event, Jayné inherits more than the discomfiting knowledge that these monsters are among us. She also comes into a substantial sum of money; an impressive property portfolio, with outposts around the world; a small team of specialists in all things otherworldly, including Aubrey, Midian, Chogyi Jake and Ex; oh, and the very vendetta that killed her uncle Eric. Jayné doesn't have time to take any of this in, alas, because evidently there's a high price on her head, and in short order she resolves to take the fight to her opponent's door.

"I looked at the window, and the darkness had made a mirror. Here was a woman on the trailing edge of twenty-two with no friends left. No family left. A shitload of money from nowhere, and the man who'd given it to her [...] had been murdered.

"I looked the same. Same dark eyes,. Same black hair. Same mole I'd always told myself I'd have taken off as soon as I had the tattoo removal done. But I wasn't the same. [...] Uncle Eric was dead. Someone had killed him. And I was going to find out who. Randolph Coin was the best lead I had. So that was the lead I'd follow." (p.50)

As evidenced above, there is a refreshing directness to Unclean Spirits, and a sense of inevitable momentum that rarely lets up. Hanover is a no nonsense author who doesn't pull his punches, condescend to his readers - whatever age or gender they may be - or overly romanticise his characters. Take Jayné: "My first kiss had been at the state qualifiers my sophomore year with a guy I'd met that night and never saw again. The next year, I'd arranged a plan with three of my friends that let me slip out to a movie with a guy from French class." (p.124)

Despite the title, then, this is not a book about purity, and to Hanover's great credit his almost disarming attitude holds true over the course of Unclean Spirits. Many moments come and go during which a less resolute author would have given in to temptation, the better to extract and exploit all the possible angst from any given encounter, but wisely, Hanover resists this impulse, so prevalent in the species of fiction we are currently considering.

No one sequence better exemplifies this restraint that the face-off between Jayné and Kim over Aubrey (see p.281), who hardly figures in to the bigger picture anyway. I'm sure you can imagine how indulgently a poor man's paranormal romance might render such a scenario, but in this smart urban fantasy it's no big thing. Jayné and Kim are just people being people, and there are other actual characters - actual characters as opposed to single-sided ciphers, you understand - amongst the cast of Unclean Spirits. Midian in particular is brilliant. He and his cohorts have real relationships rather than melodramatic arcs.

There is wit in this book. There is humour, and intelligence, and honesty, of all things. Truth be told I would expect no less from a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham, but I'm still somewhat surprised to find myself with so many nice things to say about this, the first novel in a series of four, as it stands. If there's a more versatile author than Daniel Abraham out there, excepting China Mieville, then I do not know his - or her - name.

So please: don't be put off by the bland cover art, or the uninspiring synopsis, and don't let the associations get to you. When approaching Unclean Spirits, think Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Twilight. And there are few higher recommendations in my book than that. 


Unclean Spirits
by MLN Hanover

UK Publication: January 2011, Orbit
US Publication: July 2009, Pocket Books

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  1. Nice review. I especially like the "Think Buffy not Twilight" line.

    I need to get around to reading Book 4.

    -Patrick (YetiStomper)

  2. @Patrick - Yes sir you do! If I had a copy of book two to hand, I'd be on it like paranormal on romance. I only have Unclean Spirits to go on for the moment, more's the pity, but it made for a brilliant wee breather between other more demanding magnum opuses, and there's absolutely a place in my heart for that.

    Thanks much for the kind words also. It's nice to hear nice things now and again, even for an incorrigible meanie such as me. :)

  3. Just like Abraham's other works, each book in the series gets better and better. Book 4 is freaking awesome.

  4. I really enjoyed the world that the author created as it was nice and dark while still being original.