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Stephan Zielinski
Bad Magic
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First
ISBN 0-312-87862-1
Publication Date: 12-01-2004
251 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 03-23-05

Index: Horror  Science Fiction  Fantasy  Mystery  Non-Fiction  General Fiction

"We live on a placid island of ignorance," H. P Lovecraft told us. Well, placid for some. There are many approaches to evoking the supernatural in our decidedly un-supernatural world. Most writers take a gradual approach, describing everyday reality and then creating cracks in the world we know. Stephan Zielinski cracks open the world we know and fries that broken yolk on a red-hot city sidewalk. The supernatural sleuths in his first novel, 'Bad Magic' aren't merely hard-boiled. They've been microwaved to within an inch of their lives and sanity. Readers looking for the sort of comfortable supernatural tale where likable characters rise to the occasion against an otherworldly invasion won't need to check their expectations at the door. They'll be forcibly searched. Expectations will be torn asunder, set on fire and stamped out by an angry group of men and women who work their asses off simply because once your eyes have been opened, it's tough to close them.

The premise of 'Bad Magic' is utterly familiar. We're surrounded by magic that most of us can't see, and our lives are better for it. Those who can see the magic -- well, that's where Zielinski flees from the familiar and etches out his own vision. The eight main characters who bicker, kvetch, fight and curse their way through 'Bad Magic' are a high-octane, volatile bunch of barely-sane, jargon-spouting know-it-alls, but all they know pretty much contradicts all you know. Overhearing their motor-mouth shop talk is like eavesdropping on a gang of street thugs. You'll find yourself privy to secrets that scrape away your comfort level until it gutters out in a blaze of unreal violence. 'Bad Magic' is the supernatural equivalent of one of those uncomfortably realistic life-on-the-mean-streets noirs.

As 'Bad Magic' opens, the San Francisco cell for the Opposition is attacked by "thin dogs", canine creatures that are vicious, powerful and difficult to create. Two of their number of taken down, and the rest of the Bay Area, perhaps even the West Coast, might follow. Reluctantly led by Al Ryder, the cell finds itself pitted against the Vulture cult, vampires, and vengeful ex-lovers. And even though some of the members have degrees in what they're doing, fighting the many forms of evil out there is definitely a learn-as-you-go proposition. Every case they face offers challenges. Every mistake they make -- and they make plenty -- might be their last.

Zielinski favors a dense, dialogue-heavy approach that will seem familiar in form though not in content for readers of hard-boiled, gritty street mysteries. He sets the bar pretty high with a large cast of eight main characters who are too raw to be quirky, and eschews easy introductions for overheard snippets of conversations that take place while the characters try to keep from being ripped to shreds. Al Rider is a thaumaturge, Maggie Sue Percy a fire-breathing flying witch, Pericles Whitlomb a scholar, Joe Washington a three-foot eight-inch black magician with ties to Haiti, Chloe Lee a Geoduck clam totem member, Max Sturgeon an ass-kicker, Kristof Arbeiter a German magician and Theibaud Creedon the supernatural equivalent of a very adept CIA assassin. On the streets of San Francisco, they're the only thing between the seething, ignorant masses and seething, ignorant evil. Sometimes, it seems, the cell members might have a tad of trouble distinguishing between the two.

'Bad Magic' immerses the reader in a squalid hyper-real world of casual crime and easy-going evil. It's often very funny and very frightening in the same scene; the vampires Rider and his gang encounter are handled in a particularly satisfying manner. Readers will feel that they're seeing only a small part of the universe created by Zielinski. It's as if he's some crazy taxi driver, whipping you through the worst part of town where you catch glimpse after glimpse of a barely comprehensible underworld. Reading 'Bad Magic' will leave you breathless. If you're one of those readers who likes a "This is what we're doing and why we're doing it" speech shortly before the end of the book, you're going to be disappointed and annoyed. 'Bad Magic' is a foreign movie from a supernatural world without the subtitles, all show, no tell.

No tell except, that is, for a very funny twenty page treatise on the "San Diego zombie" that concludes the book. Ostensibly written by Miskatonic professor Erik Johanson, 'Their Place in the Sun: A Brief Introduction to Zombi diego' is a wonderfully droll screed against those leathery, tanned zombies that dominate the beaches of San Diego. Like pornography, you'll know one if you see one. Chances are you've seen a few, and wondered what they were; now, with Johanson's help, you'll know. Here's a book that will without doubt change your perception the next time you visit the beach. You may not happy with the change, but be glad that Zielinski is only willing to open your third eye just a bit. Just enough to let in a decent glimpse of evil. Yes, you've been kicked off your placid island of ignorance, once and for all. Deal with it.

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