M. L. N. Hanover (Daniel Abraham)
Pocket Books, 2009
Unclean Spirits by M. L. N. Hanover, a pen name for one of my favorite authors Daniel Abraham, is the first in urban fantasy series the Black Sun’s Daughter. While I didn’t have any major trouble reading Unclean Spirits it is a far cry from other works by Abraham. It stands head and shoulders above other urban fantasy books I’ve read, and its excellent pacing and smooth prose makes Unclean Spirits a quick read.
Unclean Spirits opens with the troubled 22 year-old Jayné Heller arriving in Denver as the inheritor of her uncle’s estate. Of course there was more, much more, to her uncle than Jayné ever expected and she soon finds herself dealing with the sinister Randolph Coin; the same man who orchestrated her uncle’s death. Turns out Eric and those he knew dealt with some of the nasty things that jump into our world from elsewhere. It isn’t long before Jayné takes up her uncle’s quest; mostly in the name of vengeance for the man who helped her throughout her life.
Jayné makes for an interesting lead particularly because, at the start of the novel, there is nothing spectacular about her. She is our straight-woman. Just an average college aged youth trying to get her life together. Jayné’s early characterization allows Hanover to build on her personality slowly revealing a surprisingly steely core. Jayné’s normalcy is contrasted nicely by the people she soon finds herself surrounded by. The cursed undead gourmand Midian, an ex-Jesuit named Ex, a buddhist with magic powers named Chogyi Jake, and a parasitologist named Aubrey. Of those it is the last that we are first introduced and who is immediately (and rightfully) pegged as the novel’s love interest. Smart, kind, and impossibly attractive my knee-jerk reaction to Aubrey was an eye-roll and a sigh. Thankfully my exasperation at this obvious role was somewhat alleviated by events later in the novel. I think the origin behind the relationship between Eric and Aubrey is fascinating it was a bit too tantalizing for me and I would have loved to see the invading spirit as parasites angle explored a bit more fully here.
Midian serves as a fun historical go-to and works quite nicely for a bit of comic relief. With Eric being dead Midian serves as our only real source of information on who Randolph Coin is and what his Invisible College is all about. Hanover pulls a nice twist with regards to this and really changes how view the information Midian was doling out earlier in the novel. Ex serves a more problematic role and his relationship with Jayné isn’t explored too deeply however, there are enough hints that he could be an interesting source of tension in future volumes. Chogyi Jake serves as Jayné’s spiritual advisor through her crash course in the world of the supernatural. He serves as an excellent sort of baseline calm throughout the chaos of the novel.
Hanover makes a nice start with the characters in Unclean Spirits, but less so when it comes to the setting of Denver. When it comes to fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, sense of place is particularly important to me as a reader. The titular “urban” shouldn’t just imply a modern city setting. Rather I’m of the opinion that the setting of an urban fantasy should be just as important as its story and characters. Dresden’s Chicago is an important part of that series just as de Lint’s Newford is essential to his novels and short stories; absent of those settings neither works quite as well. Unclean Spirits does not have the same strong link between characters and setting. Given that in Unclean Spirits, Jayné has just arrived in Denver I hope that as the Black Sun’s Daughter series develops that link between character and place develops.
Unclean Spirits is a strong start to a series. Hanover’s effortless pacing and deft characterization, even if he swerves towards cliché a bit, makes for an easy and exciting read. While novel didn’t completely blow me away neither did it manage to turn me away; given that urban fantasy isn’t my favorite sub-genre that is a pretty good thing. Given my experience with Daniel Abraham’s other work I’m willing to give this series another shot and I’ll definitely be checking in to see how Jayné develops across future volumes.