Okay, I admit it: I judge books by their covers. You can’t tell me that you don’t. Humans are visual creatures. At some point, you’re looking at the cover of a book and thinking, “Hmm, that looks like exactly what I want.”
I did that with Kelley Armstrong’s Dime Store Magic. It has one of those shades-of-blue covers that suggests a sexy paranormal. Oddly (for me), I was in the mood for a sexy paranormal. The blue shadows suggested something along the lines of dark, too. I was in the mood for dark. One of those weeks, you know.
I didn’t quite get what I expected.
Despite her rebellious past and relative youth, Paige Winterbourne has succeeded her mother as head of the American Coven of witches. This, in case you’re wondering, is not the honor it seems. Along the way (i.e., previous books in series), Paige has acquired a ward, a powerful young witch named Savannah. Savannah’s father, a sorcerer, wants her back, big time. The whole witchcraft thing not being as prestigious as it once was, Paige needs help – and finds it in form of white knight lawyer/sorcerer, Lucas Cortez.
Then the bad stuff happens.
As I’ve stated approximately a billion times before, I’m not a big fan of the prologue, so take this next statement with a grain of salt. I read the prologue for this novel and got all excited. Hello, wanted to read this book. This excitement carried over for several pages into the story – and then I fell with a thud. The opening chapter didn’t do the prologue justice. All I can ask of you is patience in reading.
Paige, our heroine, was clearly introduced in a previous novel. Yeah, well, it’s not like I pick up books in the middle of series on purpose. She’s a fairly powerful young witch serving as the shaky head of a coven that can pretty much be labeled “blue-haired ladies”, and I’m not talking punk rockers, if you know what I mean. What with betrayals and witch trials and whatnot, true witches are happiest when they’re not drawing attention to themselves. Invoking magic beyond the most benign, by the way, is considered attention-drawing. The witches have deliberately allowed the secrets of their most powerful spells to be lost.
What you don’t know won’t hurt anybody else.
This is all very well and good until bad guys come to town, trying to acquire Savannah and return her to her real father, a sorcerer. In this book, Armstrong tries to pull together several mythologies, and, unfortunately, doesn’t do this gracefully. She has the witches, the sorcerers (who have formed the all-powerful Cabals, you know, the ones who rule the world, leading to an Illuminati suggestion), werewolves, demons, half-demons, necromancers, and so on. That’s a lot of paranormal for any story. Too much, all things considered, especially if you’re a reader starting at book three.
Paige is a true believer when it comes to her heritage. Her deceased (murdered, previous book) mother instilled faith in the good magic of witches. Paige struggles with the darker sides of magic (nice conflict there), even as Savannah, the daughter of a witch who turned to the dark side, flirts with the edges of propriety with mostly disastrous results. Mrs. Paige’s careful magic is not enough to protect Savannah from the possibility of being appropriated by a Cabal and used for evil purposes. Conflict develops as Paige begins to understand the world of magic as shades of gray.
Armstrong stumbles quite a bit in this story, too often dawdling on explanation and explication rather than trusting the work. Paige eventually bonds with Lucas Cortez, erstwhile love interest, who is a rebel-with-a-cause-turned-lawyer. Paige needs a good lawyer. He’s the heir to a Cabal, but doesn’t want the job. Won’t take the job, but that’s another story (something I’m not saying metaphorically).
After making Cortez a man of mystery, Armstrong goes out of her way to explain his past and philosophy, thereby making him safe. Sure, Paige needs an ally, but I needed sexual tension. Armstrong seems to be going for cute courtship, but her hero comes off as bumbling and weak in places. This is too bad because Cortez is one of the more unusual heroes I’ve read in a while. Once he and Paige started flirting over witch versus sorcerer spells, I lost interest in their relationship. It was too cute – ruining the felt-forced sex scene.
I know, I know, you’re thinking, “why do I want to read this book?” Bear with me. I have to get one more thing out of my system first. Good versus evil, to be specific. Armstrong is attempting to wit very dark magic against very light magic. Paige and Savannah (and Lucas) are no match for the forces they face. Much of the first three-quarters of the books depicts them at a disadvantage. References to previous books suggest hidden depths, but these characters didn’t strike me as winners. When the story turned brutally dark, I was looking around wondering if I’d somehow picked up a different book. A didn’t equal B.
This is going to make my next point seem contradictory even thought it’s not. I’m almost always completely consistent. After a rocky start with this book, Armstrong hooked me with her goofy humor. For example, when a young witch asks Cortez if he’s a bad sorcerer, and he responds, quite seriously that while he lacks some proficiency, there are far worse sorcerers.
If only Armstrong had maintained that Cortez through the entire novel. Sigh. Trust me, you’d be all over this guy. I am never wrong.
It was moments like that kept me turning pages. I’d be rolling my eyes (hey, I’m a trained professional – I’m allowed) and then she’d sneak just the right level of humor, angst, anguish, pain, or happiness into the story, and I’d be back to trusting her. She made me care about these people despite the story’s weaknesses. Here’s how much: I’m going to pay good money for the next book in the series. My own money, not HK’s.
For the authors out there, I’m going to offer a bit of advice: if you’re writing, oh, the third book in a series, try to refrain from the telling. Especially the telling of all that happened before. If someone has read your previous books, she’s bored. If someone hasn’t, she’s sitting there, frustrated, because all that backstory and explaining really gets in the way. It makes someone like me consider giving up on what turned out to be a good time.
Side note for editors: Kelley Armstrong is a Canadian author. I’m going to give her the benefit of the American doubt. Heck, I don’t care if she got the details about the Boston environs wrong…but then you all messed with my home state. In California, we have a little entity called the Highway Patrol. They are not state troopers. Natives would never think in those terms. Fact checking matters, people, it really does.
I quibble, I know. This isn’t a great book. It has flaws. It also has great strengths. I’m at that age where I’d rather read a book that takes chances over a book that takes the safe path. This book was filled with risks and chances. I liked this author best when she let go of the conventional and let her voice and style take over.