This week on Down the Stacks, we’ll be hitting up a dark, urban fantasy set in an alternate history plagued by the undead and desperately short on optimism: Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane.
Unholy Ghosts takes place in Triumph City, the seat of the Church of Real Truth, the only “religion” to survive the apocalypse that was the sudden rising of the dead to attack the living some twenty or so years ago. Faith and prayer proved fruitless in stopping the ghostly hordes - only the Church’s atheistic, worldly magic was able to quell the dead and lock them away in an underground City of the Dead. Because of this, the Church has essentially gained complete political control of the world and crushed all other churches - particularly any that profess the existence of a god or higher power - right out of existence. Ghosts still crop up from time to time, so the Church employs magically gifted individuals as exorcists. These exorcists are called Debunkers, likely because their real job is to expose those who are faking being haunted in order to cash in on the Church’s apology payments for failing to keep all ghosts in their place.
Chess is one such Debunker who is struggling to make ends meet due to conflicts between the low standard pay for Debunkers (who are essentially paid on commission for each haunting they debunk, and get no bonuses or actually finding and exorcising a ghost) and her drug habit. Chess is deep in debt to a dealer named Bump, who uses that debt to leverage Chess into investigating strange happenings at a small airfield he wishes to utilize for faster drug deliveries. Bump assigns his chief bruiser, Terrible, to chaperone Chess in this endeavour, which would be bad enough for her if she didn’t need to juggle that with a legitimate Debunking case and - just to complicate things further - Chess is subsequently kidnapped and threatened by a rival drug lord to sabotage her work for Bump. Add in whispers of a dead becoming more agitated than usual and a dark figure haunting the dreams of her fellow Debunkers, and you’ve got a story that at least manages to stay interesting the whole way through.
As a character, Chess reminds me somewhat of Harry Dresden. They’re both magically gifted and in lines of work that put them up against the dangerous and unsavory parts of society, and both are tenacious in their pursuit of fixing problems, no matter how hurt they get along the way. Where they differ, however, is that Chess is almost perpetually on drugs: most commonly something called Cept, with speed coming in a close second. The girl is an absolute mess; while hardly a chapter goes by without her downing a pill or snorting something, I can count on one hand the number of times she eats a meal or attempts a decent night’s sleep over the course of the week or so the book covers. It’s either a miracle or simply her system being so adapted to the drugs that allows her to think clearly and cohesively.
I have many misgivings about the world Chess inhabits, but it is an interesting study. Because the Church vehemently denies the existence of God and rejects the morality of most religions in favor of a set of laws primarily based around mandatory Church attendance and preventing anyone not employed by the Church from dabbling too deeply into magic and dealing with the dead, there’s not much evidence of worry about the societal health of the general populace. It may just be because of Chess’s own drug habit, but the Triumph City she moves around in seems like, well, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” where those who peddle the drugs rule and only need to worry about their rivals. No one takes the moral high ground to call anyone else out on drugs, drinking, or debauchery, and Chess is more worried about being caught doing off-the-books Debunking work for her dealer than being caught with drugs in her possession.
The most interesting thing to me about Chess’s world is how the common man speaks. Chess and other Church-affiliated characters speak in a manner that we would consider “correct,” whereas folks like Bump and Terrible have their own, broken-sounding dialect. Terrible often drops small words like the be verbs or tense markers and tends to use subject pronouns (she) in place of object pronouns (her). It isn’t the most consistent dialect, but the meaning is always clear no matter how mangled the sentences look to an English major like me. At the least, it’s an obvious marker for distinguishing the relatively higher-class and better educated Church employees and suburbanites from the urban street folk Chess makes her home among.
I’m on the fence about whether or not to recommend Unholy Ghosts. On the one hand, it’s a well-crafted story set in a dark but believable world with plenty of action and relatable characters. On the other hand, the subject matter is not for everyone and I am not a fan of the heavy drug use and borderline dystopic state of things. Unholy Ghosts is the first in a trilogy, so maybe there’s another shoe to drop regarding the Church of Real Truth and its grip on both the living and the dead.
In the end, all I can say about the book is that you should probably track down a copy at your local library and judge it for yourself.