Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis
Paperback (ISBN 978-0-9905961-6-5)
Aardwolf Press, September 23, 2014 — 410 pages
also available as an e-book published by IGLA
Jenna Black’s The Gifted Dead kicks off a new fantasy series full of political and magical intrigue set in an alternate, modern Europe, and in the United States. Imagine a contemporary version of the Borgias with the ability to use magical powers added to their political toolkit, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of this book’s atmosphere. Instead of underhand politicking, bribes, and blackmail committed to ensure the election of the next Pope in Rome, The Gifted Dead devotes itself to the question of who will become the next Patriarch in Saint-Malo.
The magical system, which feels genuinely original and unique, makes this book stand out. In this version of contemporary reality, people are divided into the Gifted and the un-Gifted. In previous times, the Gifted, with their frightening magical powers, were persecuted by the un-Gifted; nowadays, the two groups live side by side, but within distinctly different social cultures. People born with the Gift are granted specific individual powers by the Anima Mundi, an intangible force known as the Soul of the World, that takes the place of religious authority within Gifted society and rules through a Council of Elders.
While the Anima may be intangible, it is anything but unknowable. Each Gifted citizen has his or her own spirit guide who communicates the wishes of the Anima and sets personal quests for them to follow. Moreover, the Anima itself is a changeable force made up of all the souls of Gifted dead consecrated in the past. As new souls with different principles and ideas join the Anima, the Anima’s large-scale desires and directives change. Now, with an assassination leading to a hard-fought new Patriarchal election, one thoroughly nasty and regressive family is determined to influence the Anima itself by destroying the bodies of any consecrated souls whose liberal beliefs might lead in the wrong direction.
With fast-paced writing and eight different point-of-view characters, The Gifted Dead feels like a mix between a political thriller and a really smart soap opera. There isn’t time for any individual to be developed at length, but the large cast of scheming characters, who will do almost anything to ensure the right result, provides complexity. The hitman who is sent around the world to carry out murders and desecrations hates what he is forced to do and is only barely kept in line by blackmail. The Elder who’s been carrying on a two-year affair with a naïve girl only half his age is also the most moral politician in the book, committed to fair principles and sincerely devoted to his family. His daughter Melanie risks career and marriage to pursue justice for the families whose graves have been desecrated, but her quest is anything but unselfish, and her political ambition sometime overcomes both her loyalty to her family and her better judgment.
In contrast to all these shades of gray, the primary villains of the book, Council Elders Pietro and Alberto di Tommaso, are painted monochromatically. Not only are they sexist, homophobic, and politically conservative in every way, but they are also serial rapists and abusers.
The most painful point of view in the book is that of Anna di Tommaso, the hitman’s younger sister. Given a quest by the Anima to marry Alberto di Tommaso, she finds herself the victim of horrific sexual and physical abuse by both her husband and her father-in-law, having to take it on spiritual faith that her personal suffering is worthwhile for a greater cause. The way this issue is handled—and Anna’s own emotionally flattened response to scenes of sexual abuse in the early sections of the book, aided by a Gift that allows her spirit to leave her body behind—may alienate some readers. Anna herself debates the question of rebellion versus obedience to the all-knowing Anima throughout the book, coming to different conclusions at different times.
Readers who expect resolutions to all of the storylines in this novel will be disappointed. The novel stops at a moment of fraught political tension, with some significant changes having occurred, but with numerous plotlines awaiting the next book in the series. It feels like the midpoint of a larger storyline, and personally, as someone who prefers novels that can stand alone even within larger series, I found the ending slightly unsatisfying, with too few plotlines resolved, even if only in a temporary fashion. However, the tension that the characters are left in at the end of this book will no doubt hook many readers, readying them for the next installment of this smart, absorbing series of magical thrillers.
STEPHANIE BURGIS was born in Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband, writer Patrick Samphire, and their children. She has published over thirty short stories for adults. Her first book, Kat, Incorrigible (US) / A Most Improper Magick (UK) won the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British writer. It was followed by Renegade Magic / A Tangle of Magicks and Stolen Magic / A Reckless Magick. She has also previously reviewed for Interzone.