SPFBO: Dungeon Crawling with Criteria
Dead Letter by Benjamin Descovich

Under Witch Moon by Maria Schneider

9494168Adriel is a witch. 

That's not her real name, by the way. She's not an idiot. Far from it - Adriel's one of New Mexico's best. She's a magical trouble-shooter who can scare off a werewolf, de-curse your home, or rescue a straying husband from the ill-effects of a love potion. Moreover, she's got a heart. She'll keep your secret, say 'no' to vampires and even slip the cops a tip or two, if they're in a bind. All of which - as you might expect - makes a perfect platform for an urban fantasy.

Adriel's not a conventional hero. She's got a network of contacts, skills at interviewing and clue-spotting, a savvy minion or two and, of course, magic. Over the course of Under Witch Moon, Adriel is forced to draw on all these resources - and more - as she battles to protect Santa Fe's human and supernatural community from a menacing new presence.

For a fantasy, Under Witch Moon sits on the - surprisingly - rational end of the scale. The magic system of 'witchery' is alchemical in approach, and Adriel freely details her quasi-scientific approach to ingredients, formulas and testing. Lives - and souls - may be on the line, after all. It is a demystifying approach to the mystical, but fits Adriel's matter-of-fact outlook. She's not a manic pixie dream-witch, she's a burger-eating, crime-fighting, bills-paying problem-solver. Magic can be fun, and dangerous, and also awfully handy - but then again, so is chemistry. And that's the point that Adriel makes early and often: witchery is a skill, not a talent.

With that can-do attitude, Adriel tackles a series of intriguing cases. It begins with a werewolf murder, a romantic interlude gone wrong. From there, she's roped into the unlikely case of an affair-via-love-potion. The local vampires could also use her help - as could the police. Suddenly she's in high demand, and not everyone's on her side.

For fans of Ben Aaronovich's Peter Grant, definitely. I've been straining to think of another series that has a) an elaborate and well-developed magic system and b) eschews that system entirely in favour of solving problems with old-fashioned casework. Voila. The seamless integration of the supernatural into society will also keep fans of Charlaine Harris, Richelle Mead and Marjorie Liu happy. Fans of magic systems will also enjoy this. Brandon Sanderson is a big stretch in terms of setting, but Sanderson readers will like the thorough approach to magical tinkering (and the PG approach to romance).

Fighter (Entertainment!): Adriel's on a case - actually, on multiple cases - from the first few pages: runaway werewolves, mysterious murders, aggrieved vampires, love spells gone awry. Plus, she's got her own experimenting to do - tinkering in the lab is her hobby and her passion. Plus plus, there's a bit of 'first book in series' syndrome: Adriel takes us on a tour of everyone she knows - sidekicks, partners, rivals, family. Which is to say, there's never a dull moment.

Weirdly, amongst the perpetual motion, the bits I enjoyed were the most mundane. Adriel sharing a sandwich with her feral sidekick, Lynx, for example. Tiny moments of normalcy between the vampires, shifters and spell-slinging. These windows showed off the characters and, equally importantly, gave the reader a chance to breathe. I wouldn't reverse the ratio (95% sandwich, 5% vampire is a pretty dull book!), but there were a few moments where I wanted Adriel to just hold still: things were getting a little too hectic. Level 10.

Magic-User (World-Building!): Under Witch Moon's Santa Fe is just the right size for Adriel's adventures: our heroic witch can go everything and reach everything, but there's still enough scale for mystery, secrets and depth. Also, she eats a lot of green chile cheeseburgers, which, as everyone knows, are the best things ever. 

In a contemporary world, there are two opportunities for world-building, and Under Witch Moon takes full advantage of both of them. The first is the introduction of supernatural beings - as well as witches, the book abounds with werewolves (shifters) and vampires, as well as references to malevolent spirits and elementals. Those creatures we meet are fully integrated in our world, with no-fuss explanations of how they live and what they need. (The lycanthropic escort service was a terrific touch - initially cued as a sort of disbelieving chuckle, it becomes suitably discomforting - borderline sex trafficking in exotic lovers.)

The second is, of course, magic itself. The book's first paragraph wears its heart on its sleeve:

Being a witch isn't easy. It's smelly, grueling work.... The bulk of my work involves a lot of formulas. It's a chore like any, much like caulking a house - messy, stinky and the results don't last forever. Yes, spells wear out. They sometimes glue themselves to the wrong thing or dry too fast or don't dry at all. When I'm finished, I need a bath and in some cases, just as paint needs turpentine, I need special solutions to rid myself of the chemicals that have made themselves at home on my person.

Adriel is specifically explaining 'witchery', which is alchemical and rigorous, in contrast to magic, which is fully handwavey and numinous. But for the sake of our protagonist's activities - and the course of the book - witchery is our supernatural fuel here. And witchery? Science, not art. Over the course of Under Witch Moon, we learn about materials, herbs, alloys, magical circuitry and amulets - we see experimenting, field testing, even a bit of kit-bashed, last-minute engineering. Raw power does matter - but, ultimately, witchery comes down to making the bits work.

It sounds boring, but - it isn't. World-building via magic system is the stuff of RPG tie-ins and Lyndon Hardy, and is a tried-and-true model of creating fun and immersive worlds. For Under Witch Moon, the 'prosaic' nature of witchery is part of the joy: it fits the real world setting, it is consistent, and it is - most importantly - fun. With any heavily systematic magic, there's the chance of turning into hard SF. But Under Witch Moon sets up the rules and enjoys exploring their limits, keeping the reader engaged throughout. Level 14.

Cleric (Characters!): Adriel's a good one. She's smart, she's not omnipotent, she works hard, and she has a good moral core that she balances with a sense of... expediency. She's flexible, which I like: both in terms of her spellcasting (which could be quite dry if she weren't so fun with it) and in her approaches to crime-fighting and mystery-solving. Nor is she a super-vixenish badass or a self-deprecating beauty: she's just... a good, dedicated person, who cares about those around her. This is the sort of urban fantasy character that, when she needs to disguise herself, dresses up as an elderly woman - walker and all. Less glamour, more efficiency. Plus, she likes good hamburgers.

I was less enamoured with the surrounding cast. Her shifter sidekick Lynx had a bit of 'awww' factor, but was a streetwise, feral, secretly-fragile kid - a pretty familiar archtype at this point. White Feather, the partner - and lurve interest - just bored me. He was a little too good at everything, and not nearly as fun as Adriel is. Not to say that she could do better, but... Level 14.

Thief  (Surprises!): Not a ton. There's a certain inevitability about the way the plots came together, the mysteries were demystified, the romance connected, and the first acts guns got fired. That's not to say they weren't done well; simply that you could see them coming. Level 6.

Something else (Whatever!): Under Witch Moon is a rare bird. It has a highly detailed, incredibly systematic approach to magic... but is a character-focused mystery. It has a complicated supernatural cosmology... but the plot is entirely parochial. It has all the trapping of a romantic drama... but the love-interest (and family elements) are almost entirely sidelined. Basically, like witchery itself, this is a book about putting elements together in unexpected ways and - more often than not - getting a beneficial result out of it. I've never really liked any of the Witch classes in D&D, so I'm giving Under Witch Moon another appropriate favourite - the Tinker Gnome. Level 10.

Total party levels: 54

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