Blood Hound by James Osiris Baldwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I usually start a review with a short, spoiler free synopsis of the book’s plot, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t put one together for this book. Not that there wasn’t one, but it seemed to take a back seat to the more personal story of Alexi himself. Alexi is a mage working as a hit-man for the Russian Mafia in New York. He gets involved in a very complex search not only to clear his own name, save his life, and prevent one of the more psychopathic mages from gaining almost unlimited power. Part of the problem here is that the story seems a bit too broad. Not that it isn’t wrapped up well. It does have a definite resolution to the main plotline that is perhaps not what many people would prefer, but it fits this story quite well. It’s not necessarily a happily-ever-after story, but, then, we are talking about the mob here, and one of the story’s strong points is its almost brutal depiction of real life in a crime driven society. People get killed, sometimes for petty reasons, and people get hurt- real injuries that take time to heal and cause actual physical problems for the injured. Again, something that many urban fantasy stories tend to gloss over.
Alexi is a flawed hero, and he makes mistakes, he lets his emotions get away from him, he gets frustrated and angry, and he simply does the best he can given the parameters he works with. He is a rather refreshing hero in some ways. Many of the heroes we see in fantasy and urban fantasy are essentially good, even if they sometimes do less than good things. Alexi is, while not exactly bad, not fully good, either. He’s human, he’s often not sure whether he should choose good over evil, and that’s a nice thing to see in a genre filled with strong, resolved, unbendingly good heroes. The rest of the cast is developed, as well, and give a real sense of life to the story. The use of magic is interwoven into the plot well and seems totally normal in context of the story, which says a lot for the worldbuilding. And there’s a cat- a Siamese cat, in fact, who has a key role in at least one scene. Yay, Siamese!
So, what was the problem? Well, a couple things. There are a lot of Russian and Jewish terms and phrases used throughout, which, yes, add to the sense of authenticity, but they are mostly unfamiliar to (I suspect) most readers, and are rarely explained in context. Yes, there is a glossary, but when you have to constantly turn to it to find out what this or that term means, it pulls you out of the story too many times and that eventually interrupts the flow. The magic seems somewhat Kabbalistic in nature, and while that is referenced a few times, again, it’s not clear and caused me some confusion at points. I also found the pacing a bit slow at times. The action scenes were well done, but some of the between parts did drag a bit.
Generally speaking, this is a good book. The setting and context are different enough from what you normally see in urban fantasy to let this one stand out, characters are real and believable, and the story, while a bit fractured, is interesting. If you are looking for a gritty, realistic mob-based story with a nicely interwoven magic system, and a hero who leans a bit to the anti-hero side, you might give this a try.
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