Brought to you by OBS reviewer Verushka
*Beware of possible spoilers*
The plot of this novel can be summed up like this: Charlie Madigan is a divorced cop with a daughter, who is tasked with finding the source for a new drug that is overtaking Atlanta. Being as this is an urban fantasy, she comes with supernatural powers she is only just understanding after dying some months before the events of the novel.
Fairly standard for the urban fantasy genre, but what makes this different is the details of Charlie’s personal life and the author’s skill at world-building.
Charlie Madigan is a divorced mother of one, still trying to decide if her love for her ex is enough to make her forget how much she doesn’t trust him when this book opens. She is fiercely devoted to her daughter, putting her above all else. In a genre where competing love interests usually occupy much of a heroine’s attention, this was a welcome relief to me. She is also a member of the Atlanta Integration Task Force which polices the supernatural beings who have come to Earth from the heavenly Elysia and the hell that is Charbydon upon their discovery by a scientist called Titus Mott. This first novel chronicles Charlie and her partner, Hank’s attempts to find out the origin of an off-world drug they’ve named Ash that is killing its users. When her daughter’s friend is taken to the hospital because she’s taken the drug, Charlie becomes more determined than ever to find out what is going on.
Charlie’s personal life is complicated by Emma, a daughter who is growing up despite her mother’s best intentions, and a husband, Will, Charlie still loves but does not trust. Charlie is torn by her own misgivings and her love for her husband and this alone makes her a standout in this genre. Will, in the end, is a tragic figure in ways I did not expect, and I cannot help but feel for the pair they once were. Charlie doesn’t get a chance to deal with her feelings for him properly in this book, and I get the feeling that for her, he and the issue he created for her will remain an “issue” in any other relationship she has going forward in the other books in this series.
I can appreciate the depth Gay has added to Charlie in this way, for not often are love interests treated with such care and not used merely as love interests in novels of this genre. Will makes Charlie a better character, even if it is not ultimately a good situation for her. The beauty of Charlie is that she is complicated by very mundane, easy to understand trials and tribulations that, powers and cop or not, still affect her the way they would anyone else. I find it isn’t often that a character is relatable on the level of her personal life/situation – I mean, how many readers are going to be demon-hunting PIs who have two hot guys demanding our attention? I’m not saying every reader will understand what it is like to be a single mum, figuring out a relationship with her ex, but it is a bit more relatable than other situations of heroines in this genre.
The supernatural powers-trope is added to the mix in this novel, which while it is done in an interesting way, that ties Charlie to a greater story as a whole, I was left wondering how someone like Charlie could get a handle on them so quickly when she is shown to be the Queen of Avoidance in many, many ways. It is perhaps sacrificed for pacing in this novel, but there is so much left unsaid about these “powers” that despite the too-quick understanding of it here, there is no doubt there is too much she will have to learn in further titles.
Secondary characters are treated with care, and all closely tied with Charlie in different ways. There’s Hank, her partner who basically saves her ass numerous times and suffers greatly for it as he is an Elysian, a siren to be exact. Emma and Bryn her daughter and sister respectively who ground her, and Will, her ex.
They all lead Charlie to some tough moments of introspection in the novel, but there are times when the depth of the introspection was wiped away by Charlie deciding not to do anything about the realizations she’s made about her behavior. It isn’t enough for the main character to know she has to change, but to actually change well before the big climactic battle so I know things are different for her. Sometimes too, the introspection treaded perilously close to whininess and was only just saved from there.
In Gay’s hands, world-building is intriguing. There are the two competing alternate dimensions of “heaven” and “hell”, with beings that are nothing like the devils and angels we are used to. There are jinns, and hybrids, sirens and Lords of competing ruling houses that make for a complicated, boiler-pot of a world. And Charlie and Hank are left to find the middle ground of policing this world. It naturally is not easy, and often ends up bloody and painful for them. The possibilities in it are endless, and make me long to get my hands on Book 2.