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review 2017-10-22 22:59
The Dark Interest
The Dark Interest (The Dark Choir) (Volume 4) - J.P Sloan

I've been procrastinating on this review for months, to the point that I've even been avoiding BookLikes and Goodreads. No matter how it looks, I don't enjoy writing negative reviews, particularly of series that I previously enjoyed. I really wanted to like The Dark Interest. I've relished the rest of the series: I like the magic system that Sloan sets up, the affectionate familiarity with the city of Baltimore, and I even enjoy disliking jerkish antiheroic protagonist, Dorian. The series has routinely gone in directions I didn't experience, often leading to the tarnishing and darkening of Dorian's character. I've found it fun because it's so unexpected.

Sure, there were some rough elements, some moments that made me wince, particularly in the first book. But this book took it to a whole new level, and in ways that can't simply be dismissed as a jerkish protagonist's warped perspective. Fair warning: because some of my issues with the book are major aspects of the plot, there may be spoilers from here on out.

In recent years, Baltimore has been central in a nationwide struggle over race, police brutality, and equal justice. In 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody (and Tyrone West in 2013), the city erupted into mass protests that led to a declaration of emergency, enforced curfew, deployment of the National Guard, dozens of fires, and hundreds of arrests. For years afterwards, national news was riddled with stories of mass demonstration, civil unrest, and arrests of protesters. Despite it all, all six police officers associated with the tragedy were acquitted or had charges dropped against them. More recently, Baltimore police have been arrested for racketeering and caught on the bodycams they thought were turned off planting evidence to incriminate suspects. Long story short, like many cities in the US, a conversation on equal justice is an inescapable part of the reality of the city. 

In The Dark Interest, Sloan brings up that conversation, but in the most tonedeaf way imaginable. A riot erupts when the story starts, and Dorian being Dorian, his major concern is whether his restaurant will be destroyed or whether the riots will generate "a vibrant dinner rush." . Much of the subsequent plot involves the Baltimore riots, without ever quite saying as much. More specifically, he appropriates them as a plot point and attributes the anger to supernatural forces:

"Even though all of this was very real, this uprising wasn't a natural process. Long in coming though it may have been, this violence was engineered. Angry, ancient forces were pushing this city over a tipping point it might not pull back from."
"That's what this Summer of Blood is all about. Don't you see it? They're cranking up the heat."

I'm generally uncomfortable with this sort of twisting and belittling of history, but when the wounds are still so raw and the struggle is still ongoing? There are tragedies it is utterly unacceptable to appropriate, conflicts that it is repugnant to twist and debase and minimize and devalue. America's current conversation about race and justice is one of them.

The problems with this book don't stop there. Much of the story involves the "Jokomo Gang," a Black gang from New Orleans "displaced by Hurricane Katrina" . The members are described as "into drugs and guns" . Their brand of magic is described by Dorian as follows:

"It's not African voudou. It's Louisiana flavor, which blends lots of horrible shit from the Catholic Church, Santeria, and basically anything else the Dark Choir decided to toss into that gumbo pot."

The practitioners are termed

"Reckless dabblers. They stir up primal beings that rage unrestrained and unstewarded into our world."

The leader, Lasalle, is called a "wannabe crime lord" "a hoodlum" "an outright criminal" , and the "lead thug" . Lasalle is portrayed as a slow-witted, surly, angry, immature Black man who Dorian actually castigates a "acting like a child." Just in case you're in any doubt about the dog whistles going on here, Dorian later casually accuses the gang of "Get[ting] their free ride in Baltimore." 

When the gang confronts Dorian, questioning him about his recent actions, the "good cop" protagonist appears to "save" Dorian by harassing and belittling them without apparent cause, going so far as to refer to them as "boys": "You boys raising a ruckus out here?" If you don't understand why referring to African-American men as "boys" is toothclenchingly offensive, I'm happy to point you to some references. But in the book, this is portrayed as a heroic rescue against a gang of "your basic street thug[s]" . At another point, Dorian ends up in a police station and assumes that everyone else behind bars-- all African-American-- are "probably wondering what a man like me was up to in a police station." (emphasis mine).

Things began less than optimally when Dorian stops a kid--poor and African-American, naturally-- from committing a theft, and they have a conversation in the author's attempt at dialect. It went downhill from there. I was mystified when Dorian jumped to the conclusion that the kid from the intro was running with the Jokomos-- the only thing I can imagine is he assumes all Black kids are muggers and gang members and all of "them" stick together. There is absolutely no other reason to think that. And of course, naturally, a Black kid is the mugger. Of course, there were other things that pissed me off about the book. Dorian has always been a jerk, and his level of jerkhood in this book is over the top. He decides he deserves to run the city because he can trust no one else. He has no principles other than self-preservation. He decides that he "had to betray Choi" to save himself. Why not just take consequences for his own actions rather than destroying someone else's life? At the very least, he shouldn't pretend he was forced into that choice-- he could have chosen to accept responsibility.

(spoiler show)


I wanted to like this book. I really did. And actually, even though it infuriated me, I found it interesting to explore the perspective of a character so imbued with white privilege that his only thought during a mass protest against police brutality is whether he'll get a dinner rush. But what I have real trouble with is the unexamined nature of much of the prejudice; the thoughtless, caustic nature of the white privilege that imbues it. 

Maybe if you understand what this book is going in, you can get past all this, but I couldn't. That doesn't mean I won't give the next book a try; I'm constantly fascinated by how far down Dorian can be dragged, and the ending is a zinger.

Okay, that's all from me. At least now you know why I've been procrastinating and avoiding Goodreads for these last few months.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~ 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2017-02-21 06:20
"It's going to be fine. Assuming we survive."
The Curse Mandate (The Dark Choir Book 3) - J.P. Sloan

The Curse Mandate

by J.P. Sloane

 

Alright, this proves it: Dorian Lake is a trouble magnet. All the man wants to do is train his new apprentice and find his dislocated soul, and maybe make a living from his job as a hex-maker and his new gig as a bar owner. But fate--or knowing Dorian, it's probably karma-- just refuses to cooperate. Instead, he finds himself promising to help out his apprentice's brother with a nasty curse and finds himself embroiled in a nasty string of mysterious jinxes that threatens to bring the Presidium-- the governing body of American magicians-- right down on his head. As he puts it:

"The Presidium's about to go on a tear. Last time that happened, we got the Red Scare. Before that, Manifest Destiny."

Oh, and the demon he sold his soul to before it went walkabout is asking for a new deal while there's still time to make one.

 

If you're addicted to urban fantasy and looking for a Dresden Files analogue, then in some ways, this could be a good fit. There's a less-than-thriving magic business, a basement where magical experiments are conducted, a young and attractive apprentice that the narrator has an exasperating tendency to salivate over, and even the extreme overuse of a few catchphrases. (Ever since I read the Dresden Files, I've winced every time I've read "arched an eyebrow" or "shambled." In the Dark Choir series, on the other hand, there are far too many "sniffles," "grumbles," and "smirks," usually when words with a neutral connotation are more appropriate.) On the more entertaining side, both have a protagonist who eschews technology because of magic's ability to "put a whammy on electronic devices", and even a detective from "Special Investigations," a unit I'm pretty sure exists only in Canada and the world of Harry Dresden. I found Wren, this series' answer to Charity Carpenter, a lot more likeable. There are also many distinctive worldbuilding, from the far more secretive Presidium to the practice of geomancy to the weird world of the stregha. This book, in particular, greatly fleshes out the shadowy Presidium, dipping into an enjoyable early American alternate history.

  

However, despite all of the similarities, I found the tone radically different, both darker and more (intentionally) morally ambiguous than anything the Dresden Files can serve up. To start with, the magic of Dorian's world is a hell -- if you'll pardon the pun-- of a lot nastier. The powerful stuff ranges from chaos magic to Netherwork -- curses powered by the demonic "Dark Choir" -- to scary forces channeling the nastier aspects of nature. Dorian's magic is primarily hexwork based on what he blithely describes as "karma." Don't get me wrong; it still has its fun and silly moments--my favourite involved the magical properties of smiley faces-- but all of that moral ambiguity add a hell of a lot more suspense to the brew because the reader is left genuinely concerned about whether Dorian will slide off the moral event horizon. I found the plot itself somewhat problematic because of its tendency to completely drop subplots at arbitrary moments, but this additional moral suspense kept me simultaneously engaged and frustrated.

I don't even know what to make of the Presidium plot--it seems insane to me, but hey, I think the ringleaders probably were insane-- but I was quite irritated by the way the Ches/Ricky subplot was completely dropped. After Ches leaves, I think Dorian only mentions her a few times, and he doesn't seem even remotely preoccupied with her fate. (What a dick.) Also on the list of "wtf, Dorian?" moves was bringing Edgar along on the suicide mission.

(spoiler show)

Both Dorian and his allies take actions that made me cringe, and I still don't know where the series is heading, or just how much of an antihero Dorian will become. It's something of a refreshing change from cookie-cutter UF. When combined with a mystery I found utterly perplexing, all of this made the book nearly impossible to put down. 

 

As for Dorian himself, he's still pretty much the guy you love to hate, but what I really appreciate about this series is that it is so very self-aware of the protagonist's flaws. The other characters continually confront Dorian with his general entitled, self-obsessed, obnoxiousness. They call him out in the way he talks down to everyone, the way he believes he deserves to win, the way he demands loyalty of others long before he grants it to them, the way he stumbles into situations he doesn't take the time to understand. One asks:

"Why do you make everything about you when it isn't? And when it actually is about you, you make it about everyone else."

So sure, Dorian is annoying and seriously flawed, the novels don't try to convince us otherwise, which makes all the difference. Plus, there are the side characters. As in previous books, I have significant issues with the way women are characterized: they're all pretty much seductresses, naifs, or in the rare cases they do manage to gain power, they're depicted as animalistic. But hey, that's a criticism that is pretty much innate to the genre. Series staples Edgar and Wren make an appearance, as does Ches, the rather conflicted character of the last book, and Julian Bright, ex-politician-assistant and current bar owner. One character I was quite happy to see again was Reed Malosi, the guy Dorian kept calling "Penn State", and he has a much more central role here, and I love his character even more.

 

In the increasingly overcrowded world of urban fantasy, J.P. Sloane adds some new elements. Despite much of the standard machinery, from a struggling business to a sexy apprentice, Dorian himself is unique, both in his own unabashed flaws and the risk that he'll genuinely go Dark Side. Although I don't say this often, I suspect the Dark Choir series would be quite difficult to read out of order, so if this book sounds intriguing, I'd suggest checking out The Curse Merchant first. If you're looking for a new UF series, the Dark Choir series is worth a look. I don't know where this series is heading, but I'm definitely in for the next book.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2015-03-28 00:00
The Curse Servant (The Dark Choir Book 2) by: Irving J. Sloan
The Curse Servant (The Dark Choir Book 2) - J.P. Sloan

 
I received a free copy of The Curse Servant from the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

I also received a copy of book one, The Curse Merchant, for review and I discovered I had read them the wrong way round. This review is for book two and I have yet to read book one, silly me! Thankfully though I discovered that they both work well as stand alone stories, so that's a bonus.

 

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was a lot of fun to read and had a very creepy atmosphere. There's nothing as creepy as something evil talking through a child! The characters were very well written, lots of depth and some great personalities. I felt like I was on a journey while reading, I was drawn in and felt involved in the story along with the characters themselves. The MC Dorian is a great character, a nice mix of humour and likeability, I enjoyed his company.

 

The magic theory side of things was done well and was belivable, it was interesting to read and sparked the imagination. The world building was great, made it very easy to picture in my minds eye.

 

The pacing was perfect and it held my attention from start to finish. I would have read this book in one sitting if I had had the time to do so. I honestly didn't want to put the book down.

 

Highly recommended!

 

 

Reviews also posted to my blog: Scarlet's Web
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text 2015-03-24 12:43
Reading progress update: I've read 39%.
The Curse Servant (The Dark Choir Book 2) - J.P. Sloan

 

"Sure, but I've always enjoyed a good polishing. Relaxes me. So, want to come to my office?"

 

LOL who could hear a priest say that and keep a straight face?

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text 2015-03-23 14:27
Reading progress update: I've read 32%.
The Curse Servant (The Dark Choir Book 2) - J.P. Sloan

 

I wish I had more time to read atm as I'm really enjoying this one.

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