The Curse Servant
by J.P. Sloan
"I knew this wasn't going to be the typical meeting with Julian Bright when, instead of the usual political organ-grinders at the campaign headquarters, I found a soccer mom duct taped to a chair, foaming at the mouth."
The events of Curse Merchant may have landed Dorian Lake with a steady job providing hexes and charms for a mayoral campaign, but they also left him too distracted to actually get his work done. Battles over political slogans and housing zones pale a little in light of Dorian’s search for a way to hold off the shadows that seem to be stalking him. However, when Julian summons Dorian to exorcise a demon from one of the campaign volunteers, he realizes that the campaign’s political demons may not be metaphorical after all. The demon doesn’t stop there: all too soon, the magical and political battles start hitting closer and closer to home. With the help of a west-coast necromancer, his magical crisis can be solved in one swoop. The price? Just one little death curse.
As with The Curse Merchant, I gobbled up The Curse Servantand can’t wait for more. J.P. Sloan has a way of writing that just gets me hooked, and it’s all the more impressive given the personality of Dorian himself. Dorian is the type of guy you love to hate: he’s a silver-spoon trust-fund kid who often seems unaware of his deep disconnect from reality. At one point, he has to decide between betraying those who depend upon him and “poverty”--where “poverty” is defined as possibly needing to get his next Audi pre-owned. (Poor baby.) And then there’s his way of wooing women. As his prospective girlfriend says when he brings her to his club on their first date:
"Your ex. She worked here, didn't she? You said she was a high-priced call girl. They have girls who work here, don't they?
I stiffened and simply nodded.
She sucked in a breath. "And you thought this would be a good idea?"
"It's weird, isn't it?"
"You brought me on our first official date to a bordello where you met your ex-girlfriend. Why would that be weird?"
Dorian has an impressive way of talking himself into absolutely gutless, nasty actions while still managing to convince himself of his own righteousness. As he puts it:
"I shook my head as I realized I was putting serious thought into cursing a man with a spell from the very book I was giving him. It was a dick move, but it was my best chance at dodging my fate. I would have to be an idiot not to try."
Even though I spent about half the book detesting Dorian, I still liked him. It’s hard to explain. Part of it is the wry narrative voice, but I think a lot of the rest is the sheer novelty. Dorian definitely isn’t your cookie-cutter noir hero. He may think he suffers in silence, but that’s mostly because his definition of “silence” doesn’t match the dictionary’s. I suspect that the secret to the story’s captivating charm is the unpredictability. Unlike most urban fantasy protagonists, there’s always a real and measurable chance that Dorian won’t do the right thing. It not only adds suspense to the narrative, but also heightens the relief and enjoyment of the moments when he steps forward to do what should be done.
[Both of these types of events are present in this book. For me, the best moment where Dorian “got it” was his handling of the housing buyout. I spent half the book frustrated with Dorian’s combination of selfishness and paternalism, his belief that he or anyone else had the right to dictate how the neighborhood should be “cleaned up.” And then there’s that moment in the office. Even though he’s still planning to sell out on his tenants, he suddenly starts treating them as people whose agency has been unfairly stripped away:
"He wants to buy my properties. It's a decision being made between two reasonably wealthy men. Well, one millionaire and one trust fund child. ... Know who isn't part of this conversation? The people living there. You know why? Most are supporting families at or below poverty level. Probably leveraged on credit. Probably on assistance. I don't know their personal stories. I'm not that kind of landlord.
The problem, Mister Mayor, is that people like me are the ones making the decisions. You want to make a difference? Put people like me out of work."
I was irritated with what I suspected would be the “solution”: having Dorian not sell out and keep his promise to his tenants. It would still be him making the choices, not them. But Sloan’s solution was far more fitting, and far more elegant.
On the other side of the coin, you have the ending, with Dorian congratulating himself that he didn’t end up doing his death curse while he gives a defenceless Carmody over to Gillette’s tender mercies. In my opinion, in doing so, Dorian is just as guilty as he would have been if he had performed the curse, with the added twist of aiding and abetting in torture.
My biggest complaint with the series remains the worldbuilding, specifically the magic. Dorian’s magic emanates from karmic payouts from the ill-defined Cosmos, which apparently can be manipulated by incantations and arcane drawings. Given the clear religiosity of the magical setup, it’s amazing how idiosyncratic the Cosmos’s idea of “right” and “wrong” actually is. Killing people with magic may be naughty, but killing people in any other way or handing them over for someone else to do the dirty work is just fine. While every person has a soul which can be stolen, traded, and eaten by the demonic beings that Dorian calls the Dark Choir, it’s not really clear what the soul actually is. It clearly doesn’t store personality or agency, and its main utility seems to be protection against the shadowy Dark Choir’s attempt to devour the body as well as the soul. I’m losing hope that the series will clean up its magical setup, but despite this and some rather hackneyed elements of the plot, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the book.
Despite my general contention that every series should be readable in order of library availability, I'd strongly advise reading The Curse Merchant first. Almost all of the characters and plot elements of The Curse Servant were set up in the first book, to the point that I wished I still had my copy to refresh my memory on the various political machinations. If you're looking for a new urban fantasy series with a truly unpredictable protagonist, look no further. As for me, I've definitely got the next book on my to-read list.
**Note: quotes are taken from an uncorrected advanced reader copy and may not reflect the final wording. However, I believe they speak to the character of the novel as a whole.**
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~