Magic Bites is the first book in Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series and, well, I should probably start this review by making the same observation I always wind up making about volume one of a series, which is that the first book inevitably has to do a whole lot of heavy lifting. Magic Bites is set in an alternative Atlanta, some time after a magical apocalypse. The basic premise is that technology and magic sort of compete for control of the world, and one or the other will be “up” at a time, at semi-regular intervals. During tech, magic is unpredictable, during magic, tech is unpredictable. Hilarity ensues. And by “hilarity” I of course mean “a series of grisly murders.”
Oh, as always, I should say that there are spoilers coming. I mean technically the “grisly murders” thing was a spoiler but…seriously when aren't there grisly murders?
Our heroine is a mercenary with unknown and mysterious supernatural heritage. At the start of the book, she discovers that her guardian has been brutally killed which, given that he was a member of some kind of superpowered magic warrior cult, suggests that there's something very powerful and very nasty running around. She wangles her way onto the investigation (there's some indication that the superpowered magic warrior cult is deliberately using her as a distraction), and proceeds to kick over every pile of rocks she can find until something shows up.
Books that straddle the border between supernatural and mystery always have some delicate work to do, because part of the pleasure of reading a mystery (for many people) is playing along at home, and playing along at home requires a decent understanding of how the world works, because otherwise you have no way at all of figuring out what kind of creature could—say—take out a superpowered monster hunter and a vampire without anybody having time to react. Magic Bites deals with this problem by nailing its flag very firmly to the “thriller not mystery” mast. Kate is a mercenary (she's in a guild and everything). She doesn't solve crimes, she fights monsters. She even states explicitly at the start of the book that her way of dealing with any kind of mystery is to cause so much trouble that the guilty party tries to kill her. You clearly aren't supposed to be able to work out who the villain is from any actual in-world clues, which is good because expecting your reader to be able to predict that a yellow line on a magic detection scan must mean a fusion of necromantic and animal magic would be a bit of a big ask.
You can work out who the villain is from metatextual clues, the tried and tested “which character has no other reason to be in it” method works pretty well, for example. But this works in the book's favour, because it allows the reader to play along with the mystery without requiring a detailed knowledge of the world, and without making the protagonist look like an idiot when she fails to spot the things the reader spots. That said, metatextual clues can also get you into a bit of a bind with this book, because the most obvious candidate for has-to-be-the-villain-hood, well, isn't.
About 12% into the book (I read this one on Kindle), Kate meets the charming Dr. Crest. He is immediately interested in her, and they go on a couple of dates. By about a third of the way into the book I had reached the conclusion that either this series was going to break all the traditions of the genre and have a primary romantic interest with no supernatural powers whatsoever, or that this guy was going to turn out to be the villain. Once Kate met the hot alpha lion-shifter, I was damned near certain Crest was going to turn out to be the villain. It was only when it turned out that the villain was some kind of creepy serial seducer with a thing for supernaturally powerful women, which led to Kate also deciding that Crest might be the villain, that I started to entertain the notion that he might not be (using the, once again highly reliable, “how much book is left?” technique).
I've got to confess to feeling a little bit sorry for Crest, because in many ways I liked him a lot more than the actual romantic interest (whose name, confusingly, also begins with a C – I mean it is confusing that his name also begins with a C, his name isn't “Confusingly”, which is kind of a shame). The actual romantic interest is Curran, the Beast Lord of the local shifter Pack. Curran is…not really my type. It's partly just that I don't particularly get the cat-shifter thing. I mean, check out his profile over on the official website. I mean, maybe I just watched too much of the BBC Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, but…I'm sorry, but it'd be like boinking Aslan. And even if he was voiced by Liam Neeson that would be weird.
Magic Bites probably has the lowest-level romantic elements of any book with strong romantic elements that I've met so far. I almost felt like I was just assuming that Kate and Curran would be attracted to each other out of sheer genre convention. This is probably quite a nooby observation, but most of their interactions seem to hover in an indistinct space between indifferent, antagonistic and cordial and while I get that this can be a code for “desperately want to jump each other's bones” here it just felt more like they…well…didn't feel that strongly about each other. I should probably stress that I don't actually think this is a flaw in the book per se, just another occupational hazard with reviewing the first book of a series. The intent in Magic Bites seems quite clearly to be for Kate and Curran's relationship to develop at a slow pace over several books, rather than for them to go from zero to babies in 275 pages.
Indeed, one of the things I really liked about the book was the fact that it was clearly playing the long game. The whole thing is a well judged admixture of satisfyingly resolved short-term plot and tiny glimpses of long-term story building. So on the one hand we get a complete mystery/adventure arc in which somebody is murdered, their murderer is discovered and then defeated, all of which plays out in a pacey, page-turning frontstory. But on the other hand we have Kate and Curran's relationship, Kate's mysterious supernatural heritage, the conflict between the People and the Shifters and the various flashes of worldbuilding all of which lay the groundwork for plotlines which I'd expect to take three or four books to properly resolve.
Overall I really liked Magic Bites, it moves along at a good pace and hints at a much more detailed and intricate story to come. I had a couple of minor niggles with the plot (although the villain was interesting from a supernatural/mythological perspective he was also ultimately another variation on “misogynistic serial rapist/murderer” and I've seen a lot of misogynistic serial rapists/murderers over the years) but I'm very keen to look at the second book. Kate clearly has a lot to unpack, and Magic Bites only seems to scratch the surface of her character, and the same seems to be true of the world.
Speaking of the world, I was really pleased with the way the book just dropped you into the setting and let you piece things together for yourself. It's sort of deliberately confusing: “Okay, so vampires are ugly in this universe? And people other people control them like they're using the possession spell in Dungeon Keeper? Guns don't work with magic up but phones do? There's words of power? How long has magic been around exactly?” but that worked for me. Poking around Goodreads, I can see that this in media res approach was kind of a dealbreaker for some people, but I found it actually helped with my sense of immersion. I find that nothing draws attention to the artificiality of a setting faster than having characters who purportedly live in that setting take time out to explain things which, to them, would be perfectly everyday.
I wonder, to some extent, if this isn't a question of familiarity with the subgenre. For example, there's a scene early on where Kate is left a number of Words of Power by her late guardian. Being well used to weird fiction I was immediately able to look at that and go “okay, so one of the things that's going on in this setting is some kind of Language of Creation/Enochian/Words of God setup, cool” but I can easily imagine another reader looking at the same scene and going “hang on, what the crap just happened there?” Same with the vampires—in the very first chapter we encounter a vampire, and it's this scuttling mindless thing, and somebody speaks through it even after it's had its throat ripped open. To me that was fairly transparent (pre-Stokerian folkloric vamps, controlled by some kind of necromancers) but some readers seem to have found the event so confusing that it shook them out of the story. Obviously this is one of those things where mileage varies massively between readers, but speaking personally I really appreciated the lighter touch the book took with its exposition.
Overall, Magic Bites is pacey, well structured and just plain fun (if a bit—okay a lot—violent in places). It is very clearly the first book in a series, and read as a standalone there's a lot that just doesn't get resolved. On the other hand I suspect that it's one of those series that gets better the deeper you get into it, so it will probably repay the investment.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Magic Bites:
Accusing somebody of being a serial killer can put real strain on a new relationship. Magic swords need to be fed. When somebody you barely know asks you to read an article about an obscure supernatural being for no apparent reason, shoot them on principle.
Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.