Dime Store Magic - Kelley Armstrong (2004)

Dime Store Magic is not a bad book. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it is. The book isn't bad, it's just not very good. The fault, I think, lies mostly in the setting. It may seem like an odd word to apply to a work of fiction, but the setting feels artificial, forced somehow. In fact, it feels more like the setting for a Role Playing Game than a novel. For an RPG it would probably be a lot of fun, unfortunately a lot of the stuff that makes an RPG fun and work, is counterproductive for a novel.

The book is part of the "Otherworld" series, and at first glance it seems promising although certainly going over well-trod ground. The idea is that there are all sorts of supernatural critters living in and among human society, with their own ideas and purposes. This sort of setting has provided grist for many a mill, but here it just doesn't seem to gell. There is much discussion of "half-demons" and how their (extremely specific) powers are transmitted or not transmitted to their offspring; the distinction between "witches" and "sorcerors" (women and men, naturally); and so on, with specific jargon for each variation. The end result reads like a description of character races and types for a Dungeons and Dragons game, or even more aptly, a slightly askew game of Vampire: The Masquerade. Everything has an artificial quantification, in a way that one doesn't see in the real world. In this novel, the characters discuss "third level spells" or a spell that is "elemental, fire, class 3." One expects them to start talking about "4th level quarterbacks," "sixth level 'C' programs," or "9th level blogs." (Like this one, of course:-)

The plot is pretty basic, although there are some nice twists. The narrator, Paige Winterbourne, is a young witch who has been left in charge of a 13 year old witch (presumed to be an orphan) with scary strong powers and a poor moral compass. Powerful bad-guys, including the girl's father show up and want custody. To convince Paige to relinquish Savannah, the girl, they go out of their way to ruin her life. There's a pretty traditional romantic subplot, some magic and even a car chase or two. All in all pretty routine stuff here.

That said, there are some good points. The set pieces are fun, particularly one set in a funeral home. The writing itself is solid if unexceptional. The pacing is actually quite good. The characterization is uneven, with some nice bits and some that fall flat. Ultimately, though, the book doesn't quite work. If you are going to work in ground like this, that has been worked over before many times, you need to really bring something exciting to the party. Dime Store Magic is just a fairly generic urban fantasy. If you are an "Urban Fantasy" completist or specialist, by all means check out this book. If you aren't, but if the setting or idea sounds interesting, then I'd suggest checking out the works of, say Neil Gaiman or some of the works of Tim Powers that are set in the modern age.

Overall Grade: C-

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