Every city has its ‘Downside’. It is the area to which the poor, the homeless and the addicted tend to migrate. In run-down, stinking, littered streets they eke out their survival. The derelict warehouses and tenement blocks are devoid of basic amenities. Gangs and other lowlifes make their homes there and carve out territory. It is not a place for the respectable to venture in daylight and positively dangerous at night. This, though, is where Churchwitch Chess Putnam has made her home. This is where her few friends live.
This is an alternative world in which, during one week, all the ghosts of the dead appeared. None of them were benign. The Church here is not a religious organisation but a hierarchy that trains witches to keep the ghosts in check and confined in a region known as the ‘City of Ghosts’. Chess was rescued from an abusive childhood by the Church and trained to be a Debunker. Anyone who reports a genuine ghost gets a reward so there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will try to fake a haunting. It is Chess’ job to weed out the fakes or consign real ones to the City.
Chess’s personal life is a mess. To suppress memories of the past, she takes drugs. To fund her habit, she does occasional jobs for Bump, one of the local gang leaders. This gives her respect and relative safety in Downside. She is often supplied by Lex, the boss of a rival gang and an occasional bed-mate of Chess. Matters are complicated by the fact that Chess has embarked on a relationship with Terrible, Bump’s enforcer. The jealousy between Lex and Terrible is almost tangible.
This is the fifth book in the series and unlike the others, very little of the action has any connection with Chess’ Church responsibilities and almost all involves Downside personnel. The trouble builds slowly. There are dealers from outside the area trying to muscle in on both Bump and Lex’s territories. It takes a while to discover that it is a universal problem as neither man talks to the other and is more inclined to believe it is the other trying to provoke a turf war. Then the dealers start dying in very messy ways. Chess discovers that the speed the interlopers are selling is laced with ectoplasm, the substance of ghosts. The killers are very difficult to kill as Chess finds that they are being controlled by dark magic. As the killing becomes more widespread and more extreme, Chess has to find the sorcerer making and controlling the spells before the whole population of the Dockside area of Downside is massacred.
Chess is unable to ask the Church for help as it would mean revealing that she is an addict and that she is doing unauthorised work for Bump. Also, she has lost her only ally within the Church by confessing that she killed a psychopomp (an entity that escort the souls of the dead to the City), an offence for which the punishment is death. There is no mitigation, even though she did it to save Terrible’s life.
The pace and tension are relentless. Dismembered corpses litter the pages and Chess has to take risks that would send most people screaming for the safety of a lunatic asylum. Although her relationship with Terrible stabilises, everything else in her life continues to shred and lead her deeper into her addictions. While this makes for exciting reading it doesn’t make her a good role model. Perhaps there is a need for a ‘Parental Guidance’ sticker on the outside as there is on the packaging of some CDs. It is difficult to have hope for Chess’ future survival if she continues on her present course without some kind of rehab or counselling. The sights that she encounters in this volume alone are enough to derange any normal person and she already has plenty of bad memories to cope with. While the series started with a gutsy character find ways to cope with the nightmares life has thrown at her, the tone of the books have got steadily darker. As author Stacia Kane needs to be careful not to pile the problems on too thickly so that our faith in Chess to find ways to survive do not cross the line into the unbelievable. Kane has probably veered a little too far from the original premise of the Church protecting the population through agents like Chess into the lawlessness of Downside. Perhaps in further volumes, she can redress the balance or readers who have followed her thus far may be put off.
The first three volumes of the series, ‘Unholy Ghosts’, ‘Unholy Magic’ and ‘City Of Ghosts’, provide a well-rounded insight into this alternative world and will be enjoyed by enthusiasts of Urban Fantasy wanting a different aspect to the genre. Some will find that ‘Chasing Magic’ is a bit too dark for their tastes.