Alchemy-based magic gives a relatively mild supernatural flavor to what is otherwise a novel focused strongly on police procedural lines in Dirty Magic, a novel by Jaye Wells. Dirty Magic, the first in the “Prospero War” series, follows the story of Kate Prospero, police officer. The novel brings us to her story just as the scourge of dirty magic in her rust belt hometown takes a dangerous, and even deadly, turn.
Genre mashups, or crossovers, are always a matter of balancing acts. Unless an author is truly ambitious, there usually is a dominant genre, and a secondary genre. Often for fantasy and science fiction readers, SFF is the dominant genre, with mystery, romance, or thriller elements as the secondary genre that is layered in. A relatively popular secondary genre as of late for layering into fantasy, especially urban fantasy, has the bones of the procedural. There are a lot of advantages for a writer to use elements of the procedural, especially in terms of structure and story beats, It provides authors a narrative framework to decorate with the genre elements, and everything else in the novel as well.
Dirty Magic by Jaye Wells, then, runs with that last, as the secondary genre to her urban fantasy structure is most definitely police procedural.
Wells goes much further than just story beats in her use of the procedural in Dirty Magic. Kate Prospero IS a member of the police force with ambitions to join a Federal task force that quickly put her from frying pan into the fire itself. Her efforts on the beat and on the task force are very well detailed, from the high level to the daily grind and minutiae of police work. The loving detail that the author invokes Prospero’s job life with is obvious. Prospero’s relationships, with her fellow officers as well as the members of the task force she fights her way onto, are excellently drawn and develop both Kate and her colleagues well.
Above and beyond her profession, Kate is a well rounded character with strong links to her brother (to whom she acts as a maternal figure), her friends, neighbors and her ex, John Volos. The novel spools out the past of both Kate and John, and we get to see a lens, from years’ remove, on how their relationship rose and fell, and how the dynamics of that play out, years later. Kate’s own family past, as a member of a dirty magic crime family, that she walked away from is a constant and abiding source of drama and narrative tension for Kate’s life as well. I was reminded of a lot of procedural/thriller fiction in this regard, especially and most recently, THE DEPARTED. Most of the characters get story and character arcs of their own, with highs, lows, and payoffs. There is a good balance, especially given that the novel is entirely in first person in Kate’s head.
The genre conceit of the novel, Dirty Magic, doesn’t get as much play as I expected. I had expected, in my limited Urban Fantasy reading, to encounter much more magic and alchemy than the novel had for most of it. The opening set piece features someone under the effects of dirty magic, and there is a dirty magic cooking sequence at the end, and hints in between (including another and most terrifying set piece battle). Dirty Magic’s parallel with the war on drugs (especially methamphetamine) is a two-edged sword. For a large chunk of the novel, it did feel to me as a reader that I was reading a police procedural, a good one, about a cop fighting the drug scourge in her hometown, rather than a more overtly fantastic tale. Wells does do a good job with her fictional city of Babylon, however. I could have wished for a map, but the general lines of the imaginary city, however, were well drawn and I felt the setting work to be a highlight of the novel.
I consumed the audiobook edition of the novel on a long day of driving and hiking and photographing. The narration by Morgan Hallett was good, with good distinction between characters’ voices. I think the transitions between internal thoughts and dialogue could have been done slightly better. A couple of times early on, Prospero’s internal snark was mistaken by me, briefly, as actual spoken dialogue. I mostly from then on relied on my knowledge of the character not to be so fooled.
Overall, while I could have wished for some more genre speculation in the novel, Dirty Magic is an excellent start to a new urban fantasy series. Even if this novel had not had its magic completely cooked to my own specifications as a reader, the elements and reagents are in the world and characters that make me hopeful that subsequent novels will be even more rewarding.