I’m always nervous about reading books by people I know in case they suck. Fortunately I really enjoyed UNLEASH: Spellhounds Book One by Lauren Harris, which I picked up back at Illogicon in January. Harris works with a lot of familiar urban fantasy tropes but she pushes them beyond most of the stories I see.
The book opens with protagonist Helena slitting throats in a sacrifice. Not her choice: the magical tat on her shoulder lets the book’s villain, Gwydian, control her and he gets off on making her kill (plus, he draws power from the blood). The symbol also enables Helena and Gwydian’s other slaves to turn into dog form (which gives them some immunity to magic), or astrally project as dog-spirits. Hence the “spellhound” moniker.
Fortunately Helena and her mother have contacted the mages’ guild for help. The mages bust in and try to take Gwydian down, but when he uses Mom as a human shield, one of the mages shoots right through her. Helena, horrified, goes on the run. She ends up staying over a canine rescue operation outside Chicago with Jaesun and Krista, who run it. Helena’s PTSDed and she’s never had anything that qualifies as a normal life; Jaesun and Krista’s openness and friendliness makes her suspicious. Nevertheless, she likes it, and finds her petrified heart slowly thawing out. But of course neither the mages nor Gwydian are quite done with her.
What I think I liked about Unleash is that it pushes a lot of urban fantasy tropes into grimmer territory (note that as I don’t read a lot in the genre, I may be missing lots of counter-examples. Sorry). Lots of protagonists are burned out and traumatized; Helena’s in an even worse state when we meet her. Compared to her, Anita Blake’s positively sunny. And while she’s improving, it’s slow enough not to be improbable (in contrast to the “OK I’ve dealt with my rape let’s have sex!” character in The Warded Man).
It’s pretty much a staple in the urban fantasies I’ve seen that whatever council the good mages (or were creatures or whatever) belongs to is not so much good as not-evil. Flawed. Morally compromised. At a minimum, it has lousy judgment. But often the group still poses as the wise Gandalf types they’re supposed to be. In Unleash, they’re just plain nasty. They have no qualms about playing hardball and they’re way more interested in the spellhound slave spells than decent people ought to be.
I also liked the magic here. Wizards cast spells by drawing elaborate mandala-patterns; the designs are simple, but drawing them out in the proper order makes the difference between casting a spell and frying yourself. It’s visually appealing, and easy to understand (though the spellhound glyph’s power seems far more complicated than the effects of most of the spells), and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely enjoy elaborate magic systems and this one wasn’t overly elaborate.
My only real complaint is that the proofreading or typesetting was a mess. Most of the errors were minor, but there’s a key scene between Helena and a guild sorcerer where chunks of conversation got dropped.
I still enjoyed the book. I look forward to picking up the sequel eventually (though knowing me, it’ll be a while).
#SFWApro. Cover by Starla Hughton, all rights to image remain with current holder.