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Saturday, August 14, 2010

'Chess Putnam / Downside' series by Stacia KANE

The world changed after Haunted Week. Ghosts walked amongst the living; they attacked and killed and in the aftermath only one thing was certain... religion had lied. There was no God, no Allah, Buddah or the Prophet... there was only truth and fact, and the Church.

The Church of Real Truth reject all types of religion and hold only one surety; “Facts are Truth”. Armed with that credo, The Church defeated the ghosts, captured and banished them and bought the world back to order.

Now, in the years following Haunted Week, the Church is the world’s governing body. They investigate supposed hauntings; sending ‘Debunkers’ to banish ghosts, and prosecute those people who fake hauntings in order to receive compensation from the Church.

Cesaria ‘Chess’ Putnam is a Debunker (ghost hunter) for the Church. Chess was an orphan, used and abused by the Foster Care System, until the Church tested her magical ability and recruited her as a Debunker. Now at the age of 24 Chess is a devoted disciple of the Church; she hunts ghosts and exposes fraudulent hauntings and is one of the best Debunkers in history. But Chess doesn’t exactly adhere to all of the Church’s protocols. Chess is an addict. She smokes, swallows, injects and snorts anything she can get her hands on... Cepts are her drug of choice, and Bump is the drug supplier for her Downside neighbourhood. Everything Chess does is designed to fuel her drug habit... her work for the Church is nothing more than a supplement to her drugs. So when Bump - pimp/drug-boss extraordinaire – insists that Chess help him out with a ghost problem she can’t exactly refuse.

Downside is her neighbourhood and Bump runs Downside. Bump supplies her drugs, and Chess needs her high. So what Bump wants, Bump gets...

The series follows Chess during three ghost-related problems in Downside that see her at Bump’s beck and call.

Dialogue, dig?

I will say it took me a while to get into this book. For the first couple of chapters I was worried that I’d be the one book blogger who didn’t ‘get’ this series or understand all the fuss.

My main hurdle was the dialogue. Kane has given her ‘Downside’ characters very unusual vernacular that I struggled to get my head around. Her characters talk in old rockabilly slang (dig?) but with an old-world bent (aye/thou). So you’ll occasionally stumble across rhetoric like this;
“Benefit. Slipknot set up on yon fuckin field, yay? Terrible chatter me what you needing, on the earlier. All ready your fuckin thing, get done, we straight.”

- Book One, ‘Unholy Ghosts’
In the beginning I really struggled with the syntax, and some quotes I had to read a few times just to make sure I understood what was being said. It reminded me a little of L.A. Banks’s ‘Vampire Huntress Legend’ for the very distinct dialogue.
But once I got into the groove of the jargon and used to the rhythm I started to really admire what Kane has accomplished with her dialogue.
For one thing, the dialogue is an indicator of status in the novel. Only the Downside (and therefore poor/shady underworld) characters speak in this old-world street slang. The second a character opens their mouth to speak, you have an immediate idea about their social status.
It’s a really clever technique that Kane uses to instantly orientate readers, and also imbue her world with flavour and distinct sound. I really started to enjoy the dialogue toward the end, especially when, in my head, I kept hearing the jive-talk spoken in Lafayette’s voice (from ‘True Blood’). I struggled with the dialogue in the beginning, but by ‘City of Ghosts’ I was well and truly digging the rhythm and felt the need to answer affirmatives with ‘aye?’.

Going down to Downside

Kane’s world visually reminded me of the 2006 movie ‘Pulse’, in which ghosts start to kill people through electronics:

And the old-school 1979 classic ‘The Warriors’, for the ghettoized gang-ruled streets.

Downside is a nasty little ghetto that really puts the ‘urban’ into ‘urban fantasy’. Kane’s series is primarily set in the grungy little Triumph City and the wrong-side of the tracks where Chess lives. Downside is an interesting setting, purely for its corruption and Kane’s detailed imagining. Kane wonderfully visualizes the setting; from the seaside outskirts to the interconnecting tunnels that run below the city. At times, Downside also reflects Chess’s mood and psyche, making the city and ghetto characters unto themselves.

Messy Love

I've got to give Kane some serious kudos for offering up a very different romance in her series. Chess’s love triangle is with two thugs whose bosses respectively run Downside and control the drug business. Lex is right-hand-man to Slobag, while Terrible is muscle-man for Bump.... when Chess finds herself working for Bump, she attracts the interest of the other Downside head-honcho (Slobag) and his runner, Lex. Terrible and Lex are her ‘handlers’ on behalf of Bump and Slobag... and over the course of 3 books they become so much more.

The romance in this series is in no way redemptive. It’s not a case of a white knight riding in and saving Chess from herself and giving her a happily ever after... Chess’s romantic triangle is definitely a case of ‘rock and a hard place’. Neither Terrible nor Lex are conventional romantic leads.

Terrible was not my idea of a romantic lead... He’s described as having an overhanging brow, enormous mutton chops and a broken nose... not to mention his beating on kids when Bump orders it. I initially wrinkled my nose at him – but right around the same time Chess finds herself begrudgingly attracted to him, I was also warming to Terrible. Kane does a wonderful job at slowly revealing Terrible’s character and exposing his underbelly.

I did love the triangle between Lex/Chess/Terrible, but it’s not a traditional love triangle. Lex was never a real candidate for Chess’s affections. It was always about Chess and Terrible. Adding Lex into the mix was more a case of upping the stakes – emotionally and plot-wise.

The main reason the triangle worked was that it put Chess in an uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, situation. Whereas in most novels the creation of a love triangle is purely to raise the romantic stakes, in the case of ‘Downside’ Chess’s romantic predicament meant her life was on the line and the tension was ratcheted up a notch. Not only was Chess’s life in danger, being caught between the affections of two thug muscle-men, but the triangle served as a coming collision course for Terrible and Chess’s relationship... I loved all the tension and impending doom – it was frustrating to read at times, but the romance and romantic repercussions kept me on-edge throughout the series.


Chess is one complicated chickie. She grew up in orphanages until the age of 14 when The Church recognized her witchy talent and recruited her. But in those interim childhood years Chess was used and abused, made sexual slave to some shady characters. The sexual abuse she suffered as a child has a huge impact on her and has shaped her adult life. Chess trusts no one, she doesn’t want to let anyone close to her, she doesn’t want to be of interest to anyone and she doesn’t believe in attachments of any kind.
Chess lied to herself every day; it was just something she did, like taking her pills or making sure she had a pen in her bag. Little lies, mostly. Insignificant. Of course there were big ones there, too, like telling herself that she was more than just a junkie who got lucky enough to possess a talent not everyone had. That she was alone by choice and that she was not terrified of other people because they couldn’t be trusted, because they carried filth in their minds and pain in their hands and they would smear both all over her given half the chance.

- Book Three, ‘City of Ghosts’
Chess is a true addict; all she wants out of life is the freedom to lose herself in her drug of choice. It seems that everything Chess does is just a means to getting drugs. Her work for the Church funds her drug habit. Her work for Bump ensures she has a ready supplier of drugs. Getting involved with Lex and Slobag means she has an alternative drug supply. And one of the reasons she doesn’t want to be in a relationship is because it would be too hard to hide the extent of her habit from a significant other.

Chess isn’t looking to be saved. She doesn’t do a lot of naval-gazing or self examination of herself or her drug habit. It just is.
This is a very real portrayal of an addict... she doesn’t want to be ‘cured’, she just wants to get by, get her drugs and not get caught. Chess’s self-destruction can be frustrating and sad to read, but I loved exploring her very fucked-up and damaged character – she is such a different heroine than I have ever read before and I adored her (even when she frustrated and angered me), I was always rooting for her.

As a reader I accepted Chess’s drug habit, but never approved of it. Kane is in no way glamorizing drugs or addiction by writing an addict as her leading lady... If anything, Kane is shining a harsh and unflattering light on the ways that drugs rule and dictate Chess’s life. And even though I found it interesting to have such a flawed protagonist, throughout the books I was hoping that Chess would kick her addiction. I was waiting for a catastrophe to kick Chess in the butt and propel her to get clean.
But the ‘Downside’ series isn’t that easy. I think there is definitely room for Chess to save herself and kick her addiction.... but it won’t be an easy road for her to travel, and there’s no way Kane could have written her sobriety in three books.


I will admit that a lot of the technical ‘ghost catching’ was over my head. When Chess starts mentioning psychopomps, Lamaru, menstrual blood, bird wings for rituals... a lot of it was lost on me. Each book has a mystery plot at its centre, propelling the storyline... but a lot of the finer details were lost on me because they’re so dependent on the intricacies of Kane’s universe. But that’s fine. I always got the big picture in the end – I was able to see the forest for the trees. At times the Debunking/Church jargon did irritate... especially when I just wanted to focus on the Terrible/Chess situation.

I may not have 100% understood all of the minute details of this post-Haunted world, but I trusted Kane enough to propel the story forward, regardless of intricate plot-points. Kane does drama/action very well, heightened by all of the emotional stakes she constantly touches on, and I was never so lost that I was bored. That was probably my one, small complaint, and it’s less to do with Kane’s writing and more to do with my ability to grasp this vast Urban Fantasy world she’s created.

Good things come in 3’s...

I’m really, really glad that I read these books back-to-back. I don’t know how I would have gone waiting a month between book #2 and #3.

‘Downside’ is a dark urban fantasy... bordering on gothic. Kane’s protagonist is a drug-addled addict who is living drug by drug, day by day. Her romantic leads are thugs and muscle-men... and her home is the grimy ghetto of Downside. This Urban Fantasy is not always a comfortable read; but the darkness is part of the allure, and sets the series apart from any other Urban Fantasy out at the moment. I love, love, loved these books and I’m happy to say that I finally *get* what all the fuss is about. I dig, aye?

More Downside to come...

I am thrilled beyond belief to read that Ms. Kane has more Downside books planned. She is contracted for at least 2 more in the series. Book #4 will probably be released in Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 for Book #5. That is a long wait, but I know it will be worth it.



  1. Oh I think I'd have a problem with the dialogue too. Maybe I'll try the audiobook but I do plan on reading this series one day.

  2. See, I'm still at the beginning of book 1, I've had other projects going on. I've been reading this one in spurts while standing in line, etc. I think I need to put it aside until I can concentrate on what I'm reading. Fabulous review!

  3. Awesome review hon! I really enjoyed bk 1, but Im saving to read 2 and 3 when I get the time to read them back to back =)


  4. I am so glad you liked these books. I think I would have had to strike you from my roster of favorite people if you didn't. :)

    Everything worked for me in these books. I was skeptical about the dialogue too but found it really easy to slip into 'downside' speak when I needed too.

    I loved me some Terrible and Chess is really one of my favorite female characters to come along in a long time. I think because she is so f'ed up and a lot more 'real' than normal u/f heroines.

  5. Great review of my one of my all time fave series evah!
    Not a single thing I didn't love about them.
    Satcia Kane is something else... :)

  6. I really struggled with the drug use at first. I just don't care for it. But every other aspect of this series drew me in and I was able to get passed my issues with the drug use. I did struggle with the dialog as well, but eventually found my downspeak grove. Very nice review.

  7. There's a big risk of disenfranchising your reader with this type of dialogue, but you've illustrated a very good point about the characters' social classes. I'm reminded of Anthony Burgess, how he fought his publisher over the inclusion of a glossary and lost.

  8. Finished yesterday!! Wow, I can't believe we have to wait until Fall 2011 for book 4 *cries*. I'm definitely feeling the Terrible love :)

    AND, I have to tell you, re-reading your review made me feel so much better: There were a few things I didn't follow and was feeling kind of "dumb" about it - thank you for admittng you didn't catch it all either.


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