Hard Spell is the first book in a new series by Justin Gustainis, the Occult Crimes Unit Investigation series.  There is a second book in this urban fantasy series in progress, Evil Dark.

The supernaturals (or “supes” for short) were not a regular occurrence in the United States until after World War II. When the American soldiers came back from fighting overseas, many of them returned as vampires or werewolves and the supernatural started to become more widespread in America. As traveling by plane became more popular, many more of the supernatural moved to the US and their numbers continued to grow.  The supernatural were more prevalent in some places than others, and many of them gathered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, due to its ley lines. This keeps Stan Markowski busy at his job in the Occult and Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit: he’s called in to take care of everything from goblins on meth robbing a liquor store to demon summoning rituals.

One night Markowski and his partner Karl Renfer are assigned to check out the scene of a murder. A wizard was gruesomely killed, but whoever did it raided his safe yet left a rather substantial amount of cash behind. Markowski wants to know what exactly the murderer was after since it obviously wasn’t money, especially since the dead man had obviously endured a lot of torture before giving in. He enlists Rachel, the department’s witch, to perform a necromancy to find out what happened from the victim himself, but this goes awry. This becomes the least of their problems as vampires are methodically murdered, and Markowski and Renfer learn more about the potential of the stolen object. Can they stop this ambitious vampire/wizard murderer from attaining his ultimate goal before it’s too late?

Hard Spell was not my cup of tea. This book and I had a rocky relationship from the very beginning since the jokes struck me as very cheesy and overdone, meaning I was rolling my eyes far more than I was laughing. It tried very hard to be funny and show how modern it was, and this just fell flat for me. If not for this, the handling of female characters, and some clumsy writing, I probably would have found it an unoriginal but vaguely entertaining book, especially because it did improve toward the end. Unfortunately, the later improvement wasn’t enough to make me want to pick up the next book and I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable to read.

This is another urban fantasy where werewolves, vampires, witches, wizards, goblins, and all kinds of magic lives among us in modern times (although the fact that AOL came up made me wonder just how modern it was). It’s also another one featuring a main character working for some sort of paranormal investigation unit dedicated to dealing with keeping order with all this magic around. It also has a rewritten history including details such as Martin Luther King having a dream including supernaturals and naturals living together peaceably – and perhaps being a closet supernatural himself since he was killed by a silver bullet. It seems like very standard urban fantasy with a few different historical details, but nothing about it seemed terribly unique to me.

The main aspect that sets it apart from other urban fantasy books I’ve read is the tone of the writing. Markowki’s narrative is very coarse with a very specific brand of humor. As a whole it’s also full of foul language, which one may or may not have a problem with. That doesn’t bother me personally from a moral viewpoint, but it did bother me just because it appeared to be going out of its way to include bad language. In general, it seemed to be trying much too hard to find outlandish expressions or “clever” phrases to include.  Here’s a couple of examples of what appeared to me as trying too hard so you can judge for yourself if you’ll have some of the same issues (language/sexual content warning ahead):


Scranton’s got a “live and let unlive” relationship with the supernatural, just like everyplace else. [pp. 1]

…I started into my eggs-over-greasy… [pp. 163]

She was looking at me as if I’d just suggested we have three-way sex with a goat some night. A really old, smelly goat. [pp. 55]

I heard Karl mutter under his breath, “Well, fuck me to Jesus with a strap-on dildo.” [pp. 46]

It’s littered with modern day references, which your mileage will also vary with.  Personally, I rolled my eyes about the adult video store where they came across Werewolves Gone Wild and The VILF Next Door (“VILF” of course stands for “Vampire I’d Like to Fang”). Even aside from that, I thought it spent too much time trying to drive home the point that this was modern. It included far more description than is necessary for things like IM chatting with a vampire and searching Google for information on a book called the Opus Mago. The Google search scene told me how many results there were, that many of them dealt with music or some penguin, and that he then put quotes around “Opus Mago” to get better results. It’s enough for me to know Markowski was searching for information on the book; I really don’t need to know the details of how he conducted his Google search. Similarly, there was a part where he checked his voicemail that included the entire part at the beginning about which number to press to perform certain actions. While it is very much a part of what Markowski is doing as a first person narrator, it still seems like clumsy writing to me – it’s enough to know what was said in the voicemail without knowing what number will delete a message. Also, the beginning is just one big infodump about how the supernatural got to America and why they are especially attracted to Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Furthermore, I was bothered by the treatment of female characters in the book. I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not this is justified since I really did get the impression that Markowski viewed these women with respect for their abilities and competence at their jobs. However, in spite of being told about their competence, the more prominent female characters do end up being damsels in distress – one ends up as a vessel inhabited by evil, one is kidnapped, and one is held hostage. As a somewhat standard crime noir tale, this book probably isn’t trying to buck any gender trends, but if you are looking for a novel with heroines that act like the match of the guys, I suspect you’ll be disappointed with this one. It’s implied that these women are strong, but it didn’t do much to back up that claim.

This didn’t bother me nearly as much as the way Markowski always seemed to comment on the female character’s body/attractiveness unless she was a relative. I suppose this is normal for a straight, single male, but the way it was done just seemed unnecessary, and like many things in this book, over the top. For instance, there’s a character in the office by the name of “Louise” who is called “Louise the Tease” behind her back because she wears tight clothing. Aside from that, she’s supposed to be a genius, but there’s far more focus on her style of dress, especially because we’re briefly told she’s intelligent without really being shown that she is. Markowski thinks of her as “Louise the Tease” instead of simply “Louise.” Another woman, Heidi, couldn’t be introduced without being privy to the fact that Markowski wonders “if her supe-proof vest had to be custom-made to accommodate those formidable breasts” (pp. 268).  This is probably just to seem in keeping with the cop character type and one who’s not that young, either – after all, Markowski thinks of  his partner in his early 30s as young and is old enough to have an adult daughter. Yet the number of times these types of comments were made got to be too much and it didn’t make me feel any better about the portrayal of women in this book.

This book is heavier on the urban fantasy/mystery aspect than characterization, although Markowski is given more depth through some revelations about his past. He’s not the sappy type, though, so some of the more touching moments are glossed over. It’s very much about the action – at least when it’s not focusing on the riveting Google search or voicemail scenes.

Hard Spell just wasn’t a book for someone with my taste. The story was somewhat entertaining on its own later in the book, although it was a somewhat generic urban fantasy/mystery combo. It’s not very character-oriented, plus it was dragged down further by lame jokes, objectified female characters, and just all around over-the-top expressions and descriptions.  They may seem like nitpicky little things separately, but there were certainly enough of them quite frequently that they added up, especially since aside from them I found this book mediocre at best. However, I just collected links to ratings on the other sites I always include at the top and I just noticed I seem to be the only person who didn’t like it, so perhaps you will.

My Rating: 2/10 (I was torn between a 2 and a 3, but I decided that any book that made me stop reading and rant at my husband as much as this one did should be a 2)

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the author.

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