I met Gail Z Martin at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, of all places, hardly the location you might expect for the author of an urban fantasy series like this one. Then again, her seven earlier novels fall into a more traditional fantasy niche and her next book, 'Iron and Blood,' co-written with her husband, Larry N Martin, is the first in a steampunk series set in New Pittsburgh in 1898. It was Time Traveler's Weekend, after all!
With so much fantasy on the table, 'Deadly Curiosities' was the obvious odd-man-out but the cover was too much of a cheap 'True Blood' knockoff to particularly attract. However, the back cover blurb caught my attention. How could I resist an urban fantasy yarn centered around an antiques store called Trifles & Folly?
The fact that it is three and a half centuries old but still family-run adds charm, as does the conceit that the silent partner throughout that time is a 500-year old vampire. It's located in Charleston, SC; one of only three places in the US that I've visited and felt history. Best of all, the business front hides a more dangerous family tradition, in which the successive proprietors of Trifles & Folly acquire supernatural objects and neutralise their power.
It's good to see this sort of story in print, as comparisons are far easier to draw to TV shows like 'Warehouse 13,' 'Friday the 13th: The Series,' and 'The Librarians'. The action Martin stages is neatly visual in nature and it's no stretch to imagine this on-screen as the latest in that genre of show. It would be good to only have to wait another week for the next adventure too, but Martin has that need covered with a string of short stories in digital form.
The other influence I found was the cosy. This may be an urban fantasy, but it's more polite and less sexual than most of the other urban fantasy series that I've read and Martin has that easy style of writing that makes the pages turn quickly. That doesn't mean that Cassidy Kincaide isn't going to find romance somewhere down the line in future volumes, but it's thankfully nowhere to be seen in this book, replaced by character, story and an interesting set of talents.
Cassidy is the current proprietor of Trifles & Folly and she's able to read some of the history of an object through touching it. One of my favourite things about this book is that Martin doesn't see this purely as a perk for a collector of antiques and supernatural artifacts, but also as a danger of which she has to be wary. She can get lost in those histories and finds that even walking in certain parts of town sends stories up through her feet. I look forward to reading more about the balance of this ability in future books.
Sorren, the vampire, is, of course, a powerful creature who has partnered with many members of the Kincaide family before her. His history and stability means that he has a host of useful magical items to bring to the fray. I can only dream of what I could gather together in five centuries!
The third regular cast member, if we can imagine it that way, is Teag Logan, the assistant manager at Trifles & Folly, who has talents of his own. As a magical weaver, he can find data with ease on the Darke Web (I see what you did there, Gail.) More down to earth, he has mad skills in ethnic martial arts that always come in handy in stories like this.
And they come in handy here, too; because it doesn't take too long for the mystery to escalate and the dangerous opponent of book one to make himself known. The book merely starts with a polite teaser in a pair of opera glasses that take the viewer back a century to a deadly fire in Chicago and builds through a set of haunted purchases that a bed-and-breakfast made from Trifles & Folly. The quirk is that none of them were dangerous until now, which means that something is activating them in a way that their owners aren't happy about in the slightest.
I enjoyed 'Deadly Curiosities' a great deal. The negative side can be firmly laid at the door of Martin's publisher, Solaris Books. Beyond the cover image being annoyingly misleading, the book not being remotely like the Sookie Stackhouse stories, it suffers from a bizarre layout problem. I can only assume that Solaris didn't want to spring for the page count that the book deserved, so shrank all the headers and footers, margins and gutters, so that the text fits into fewer pages. Unfortunately, that means that it extends much too closely towards the middle and makes it difficult to read without breaking the spine.
If the negative side belongs to Solaris, the positive side is all Martin's. I was only in Charleston for a few days sixteen years ago, but I recognised its feel easily from her prose. It isn't merely a location in this book, the city is a character in itself and it has plenty of opportunity to grow with the human (or non-human) characters as the series runs on. There's a lot of history here too, whether real or imagined, that adds power to the story. Like a modern TV show, this has a strong sweep to it that makes this book a season not an episode.
More than anything I enjoyed the characters.
Cassidy is a good lead - with power - but not too much of it and she successfully avoids a whole slew of cliches; this series doesn't involve a complex multi-species lovelife for her and that's acutely refreshing. Sorren takes a long while to arrive in the book and clearly has much still to reveal, but he has massive potential as a character who will surely come into his own in future volumes. Teag is a little more convenient in how he's put together, but he's still fun and Martin writes him well.
Lesser characters who would be described on a TV adaptation as 'recurring' rather than 'regular' are just as fun, especially Lucinda the voodoo priestess and ex-special forces Chuck with his odd clock obsession. Not all the supporting characters are going to continue on but some clearly will, others should and more are no doubt going to show up soon.
My hopes are that Martin finds enough time in her busy writing schedule to continue this series in novel form soon and that, when she does, she keeps it grounded the way she did here. It would be easy to let the conveniences multiply and fall into cliche; she successfully avoids both in this first volume and will hopefully remain as successful in future volumes. ~~ Hal C F Astell