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Dirty Magic (Prospero's War) by Jaye Wells
Review by Drew Bittner
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316228435
Date: 21 January 2014 List Price $10.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

For Officer Kate Prospero, policing "dirty magic" (that is, back alley alchemists cooking dangerous potions) isn't just a job: it's a lifeline. She used to be one of them...and that dirty little secret may be the only thing that can save her.

In Dirty Magic, Jaye Wells launches Prospero's War, a new urban fantasy series. The city of Babylon cannot get control over its inner city drug problem--except here, the drug of choice isn't meth or crack, it's potions that give the users their heart's desire: youth, strength, beauty, you name it. Just like drugs, though, the potions decrease in effectiveness with prolonged use and side effects begin to appear.

Now an especially nasty potion--Gray Wolf--is on the streets. On patrol one night, Kate Prospero nearly loses her life taking down a cannibalistic berserker who turns out to be more important than she could know. This one shooting propels her to the attention of Agent Gardner of the Magical Enforcement Agency (MEA) and her task force. Given Prospero's background as the niece of a major crime boss (currently in prison), her career prospects are grim--until she pushes her way onto the task force in a bid to prove herself.

With a brusque new partner, Drew Morales, watching her back, Prospero makes use of old contacts and her streetwise past to hunt down the maker of Gray Wolf. Unfortunately for her, the trail leads to John Volos, a wealthy businessman... as well as a former dirty potion maker and Kate's lover. He has the skills needed to make Gray Wolf, but what does he stand to gain?

Meanwhile, her personal life--being surrogate mother to her brother Dylan and confidante to her teacher friend Pen, when she isn't at meetings to manage her addiction to potion-cooking--is a shambles. She's struggling to make ends meet, she has to make her place on the task force a success, and she has her past hanging over her head like a storm cloud. With all that going on, just getting up in the morning can be a struggle.

When Prospero brings in an old enemy for questioning, though, things get personal and very nasty fast. A raid into enemy territory reveals a strike at Kate herself, and suddenly everything is on a short timetable. She has days, at most, to find answers or suffer horrible losses on all sides. This is when it all gets real and Kate has to decide what's really important to her. The lives of many in Babylon will hang on the answer.

Wells has created a terrific new series with this novel, putting a sympathetic protagonist in a setting rife with possibilities. The only magic in operation is based on alchemy, with big companies creating "clean" potions for mass consumption, while back-alley "dirty" magic does likewise out of sight (and official regulation). There's not much that distinguishes the two, save that one is approved and one is not; both have cumulative side effects and both produce short-term solutions to deeper problems. The parallels between drug addiction and potion use are far from hidden, as well. Wells skillfully melds the two, resulting in a flash of "Of course!" from the reader more than once. If this connection has been made before, it's possible it has not been done so well.

The story has plenty of twists and turns, enough to keep even veteran urban fantasy readers guessing, and a resolution that nicely sets up the ongoing meta-plot. Readers who enjoy police procedurals laced heavily with strange and unpredictable magic will love this book.

Recommended.

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