REVIEW: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

REVIEW: Hard Spell by Justin GustainisHard Spell (Occult Crimes Unit Investigation #1) by Justin Gustainis
Published: Angry Robot Books (2011), eBook, 400pg
Source: Author
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy

Stan Markowski is a Detective Sergeant on the Scranton PD's Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit.

Like the rest of America, Scranton's got an uneasy 'live and let unlive' relationship with the supernatural. But when a vamp puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, that's when they call Markowski. He carries a badge. Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets. (from Goodreads)

I don’t know why, but I basically compare every urban fantasy mystery with The Dresden Files, which can be detrimental to how much I like a book when it’s really not like The Dresden Files at all. Hard Spell is sort of like the Dresden Files in that it’s got urban fantasy stuff and a dude who walks around wearing a trench coat, but the Dresden Files is fantasy noir and Hard Spell is more like a police procedural (with vampires). the Dresden Files has snarky, pun-y humor; Hard Spell has bantering police officers and really dark humor. the Dresden Files has more twisty, interconnecting plots; Hard Spell is more straightforward.

Okay, so: did I enjoy Hard Spell? Yes, even though I kept wondering why it wasn’t The Dresden Files. The protagonist of Hard Spell, is more contained and unknowable than Harry is in the Dresden Files, which might be because he’s a police officer and they’re all hardened and brittle and stuff (apparently). We don’t really learn all that much about Stan (including how he feels about things) until maybe halfway through the book, and what we do learn comes in bits and pieces. The secondary characters are more knowable than Stan is, and it’s weird having a protagonist take you through a plot when you don’t even know if he’s happy or craving bacon or what.

I actually do like it when I’m not immediately hit with an infodump of all the protagonist’s favorite foods or whatever, but Stan’s reticence in saying much about himself made me distrust him, which I don’t think was the intention. Instead of mysterious loner police officer he came across more like a mostly-blank slate, you know? With maybe a bloodstain in one corner.

The author

After the big revelation halfway through the book he starts to become more like a person and less like a slate, but by that time I was already set against him AND the big revelation just made me dislike him more (for reasons which are spoilers).

Anyway, I liked the world the book’s set in, which is an alternative history after WWII, only focused on supernatural creatures and their intro into the non-supernatural world. I love alternative history, and having supernatural creatures out in the open makes things interesting, not least because it means special laws/special police departments/etc. come into play.

The mystery was also really good. It had just enough intrigue and wtf-is-going-on stuff in it to keep it interesting, but it wasn’t so overly complicated that it became muddled and confusing. I liked how there was actual hunting down of evidence and witnesses, and how that didn’t make the plot really slow and/or boring. There’s plenty of action in Hard Spell, no worries! In fact, the end sequence was so action-packed that I nearly threw my Kindle across the room, it was so exciting.

So: do I like Hard Spell? Yes. Do I like Stan? No, especially since [spoilers, highlight to read] he seems to think it’s okay to turn people into vampires without their permission, just because they’re dying and he doesn’t want to deal with that, TWICE [/spoilers], and that doesn’t really endear him to me. But I liked the secondary characters a lot, and I’m interested in reading more about them/their world/the mysteries they solve. I can deal with a weirdo protagonist when he’s got such an amazing world set behind him, I think.

Read: July 18-25, 2011

I don’t know if Stan is actually unlikable or if I’ve just made him that way because he’s not Harry Dresden. I just really need to stop comparing books to the Dresden Files; it’s unfair to do that. I’ll try to stop! I promise.

Here’s the book trailer for Hard Spell!

Also, here’s an interesting guest post from the author talking about why he chose Scranton for the setting of Hard Spell: “Why Scranton?”

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis”

    1. I think you’d like them! Harry’s one of my favorite characters, even if he IS a bit too smug in his chivalrousness towards women.

  1. I think that I would like this book. I have enjoyed gritty police procedural novels – P.T. Deutermann’s Cam Richter series, or Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir books. Throw in some urban fantasy and this sounds appealing.

    I have read the first Dresden Files book and I liked it but didn’t fall in love with it. It did mean that I got the reference when my co-worker said she was a wizard because technology seems to fail whenever she’s present.

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