The Curse Merchant - J.P. Sloan

There’s nothing quite so clarifying as a gun to the head.

After Dorian Lake manages to disarm his disgruntled ex-client, he takes a long, hard look at his life, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Ever since he broke up with the beautiful Carmen, it’s as though he’s been in a fog. He has lost touch with his friends, avoided his club, neglected his tenants, and let his main business--charms and hexes-- collapse into decay. Dorian is determined to reinvent his life, starting with a brand new wealthy, influential, and highly political client. But when a woman stumbles up to his door after selling her soul, Dorian suddenly finds himself bartering with Netherworkers, being tracked by the Presidium, and considering some seriously dark roads that he promised himself he’d never take.

 

One of the dangers of reviewing books about snarky supernatural detectives--and one I’m always happy to fall into, to the chagrin of several commenters-- is comparing every urban fantasy to the Dresden Files.

In this case?

Alienated mentor who died in a peculiarly gruesome fashion? Check.

Constantly over-exoticised seductive Hispanic love interest? Check.

Clear-cut in-universe distinction between “good” practitioners and “bad” ones? Check.

Self-important, self-righteous, vaguely threatening governing magical body? Check.

Shop selling magic, operated out in the open within a masquerade world? Check, although I don’t think it’s in the phone book.

But The Curse Merchant really isn’t just yet another Dresden Files clone.

Plus, the story takes place in Baltimore. A charmworker in Charm City? Priceless.

 

Although the story may start out like any other such urban fantasy, it soon swoops into rather new territory, at least in my experience. In Dorian’s world, there are two main forms of magic: “karmic”-powered hexes and curses, and the even darker arts of Netherwork. Netherwork, magic derived from ancient and malevolent beings that Dorian refers to as the Dark Choir, is paid for in a variety of ways, including human souls. And thus the gentle art of soul-mongering, with which Dorian is about to become all too familiar. When you dig too deeply into Netherwork, the shadows start hunting you.

 

Dorian Lake isn’t quite the standard protagonist. For one thing, he’s a complete dick. Although he fulfils the standard impoverished supernatural detective schtick, he was born an upperclass silver spoon twat, and he hasn’t lost his snobbery. He can be demanding, jealous, and needy, and he cries at the drop of a hat. Despite his self-righteous complacency, I found his particular brand of magic to be downright low-level evil. Personally, I think the whole “karma” and “Cosmos” business is a crock. In the opening scene, we discover that he, with the help of karma and the cosmos, gave a woman an eating disorder at the behest of her ex-boyfriend. His main business consists of such unsavory hexes, yet he still considers himself to be a “good guy.” Like all self-proclaimed “good guys,” he’s a pretentious, self-righteous prick, and I experienced a somewhat Schadenfreude-laced glee as his karmic kicks start coming. All the same, in a weird way, I rather liked him. For one thing, he's considered to be somewhat of a jerk within the novel, so my reaction was probably intended. I definitely enjoyed his narrative voice, and my disapproval of Dorian only heightened the relish of his situation. In my view, Dorian is a bad guy, but he’s an interesting one.

[A textbook example is the hex that wipes his memory. He’s furious with Carmen for hexing him, but he was just about to hit someone else with precisely that brand of traumatic confusion and isolation.

I found Dorian’s readiness to prey upon his own clients to be profoundly disturbing. Leaving aside Abe, I found what he did to Sarah to be one of his worst actions. He humiliates her into vulnerability, takes advantage of her feelings of inadequacy to talk her into selling her soul, and excuses it all mostly because he despises her. Speaking of which, the suicide thing was awful and impressively insensitive.]

(show spoiler)

 

Despite the upperclass protagonist, The Curse Merchant really captures the heart of hardboiled/noir. It’s rather like a Lawrence Block novel garnished with supernatural shenanigans. However, the book also reflects some of the less savory aspects of the genre. The few non-white-male characters tend to be casually stereotyped and exoticised. Carmen, Dorian’s ex-girlfriend, is constantly exoticised, her personality and choices often labelled with gender or race, e.g. “her Latina pride” or the “typical pissed of Latina posture.” The Arabic and African-American characters are as heavily stereotyped as the rest. It's a pity that the novel had to capture the worst, as well as the best, aspects of hardboiled/noir.

[When Dorian meets Malosi, the main African-American character, he immediately assumes the man is an uneducated thug. Even though Malosi became one of my favourite characters, I was disconcerted by the categorization and exoticization.

 

One moment that stuck in my craw was when Dorian goes into a seedy dive and is greeted with, "I'll be damned, a white boy.” Even the Syrian even turns out to be, essentially, a terrorist.]

(show spoiler)

 

The Curse Merchant is a romp, an adventure, packed with deliciously ironic twists and turns. It’s not precisely introspective, and it’s not going to leave you with any deep thoughts to ponder, but it’s a fast and fun read. Best of all, it terminated with an ending that I definitely didn’t expect, and it left me cackling madly.

 

So, Dorian, even though I think you’re an asshole, even though I pretty much think you deserve everything you get, count me in for your next adventure, because I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review. ~~