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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Witch of Babylon - a thrilling ride for archaeology/art history buffs

You know you’re in good hands with an author when, half a page into the prologue, you are bewitched to the point you forget what century you’re in.  The return to the book’s current reality half a page later was a brutal but effective wrench; it assured my intense interest throughout the remaining 320 pages.

But enough about the writing.

‘The Witch of Babylon’ is at once a complex art-history mystery centered on biblical scholarship, a breath-stealing thriller set in the early months of the Iraq invasion, and an intellectual exploration of links between Mesopotamian myths and European alchemical processes. Not to mention the archaeological lore and torch-lit journeys into subterranean realms. Oh, and a personal journey of growth by a spoiled young art broker after the death of the older brother who has always shielded him from consequences.

This is a square-on hard stare at the murky world of antiquities looting and trading as well as a disturbing return to the early, chaotic weeks and months of the Iraq invasion. Add a soupcon of travelogue over the streets of New York City and various parts of the Middle East, and there is much to enjoy about this book.  For those who like extras (ie me) there's a map, a short historical note at the beginning and more historical information sections at the back for those who want to go deeper into the arcane subject matter.

My ARC was sent by the author, D.J. McIintosh (after my bugging her for three years to be allowed to read the full manuscript). When it arrived I read the whole book in a sprint, with only meal breaks, and will now read it again more slowly, to savour the unfolding story.

‘The Witch of Babylon’ was short-listed for a Debut Dagger in 2007 and won an Arthur Ellis award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel in 2008. It is being released by Penguin Canada in June 2011 and (at last count) has sold rights in 15 languages around the world.  
 ‘Witch’ is the first book of The Babylon Trilogy.  I can't wait for the next.   

D.J. McIntosh
ISBN 978-0-14-317572-8
Penguin Canada
June 2011

Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Paranormal Detectives

An anthology can be a tricky assemblage. A strong theme can result in stories of a similarity that wears on the reader, while a weak theme leaves disconnects from one story to the next, gaps that allow the reader's attention to leave the book entirely. Editor Justin Gustainis found a good balance with 'Those Who Fight Monsters.' All stories have a monster (or more than one) and a detective, yet each stands alone in respect to characters and plot.

The detectives cover the gamut from hard-boiled PI's giving - and getting - low blows on the mean streets to intellectuals expounding on crime in refined quiet rooms. Sleuths include the demon-fighting soccer mom trying to shepherd her daughter safely past demon-snares as well as the normal risks of adolescence, the disgruntled Security sorcerer who battles bureaucracy as well as beasts, and other detectives both amateur and professional.  

The paranormal elements are equally varied. In addition to the usual vampires and werewolves, there are demons of compelling variety and more than one style of shape-shifter. Snakes, ugh.  Fairy-tale creatures such as gnomes and fairies also appear. The detective isn't necessarily chasing a monster, nor is the monster always the villain. The settings are mostly urban, mostly modern, with an overlay (or underbelly) of fantasy elements. 

One reservation about this collection was that some authors presumed a familiarity with their series work and left me faintly lost at first, while others seemed to be trying to fit several novels' worth of back story into the opening paragraphs and slowed the pace accordingly.  Apart from that disparity, the collection was a joy to read and introduced me to several paranormal/mystery crossover authors I'd not heard of previously but will certainly follow up now. 

All in all, these fourteen stories provide plenty of meat for both the detective-story aficionado and those fascinated by paranormal fiction. And, if you've ever pondered the fictional detective as a reflection of archetypes, Gustainis' introductory essay is a treat.  

(This review was previously published on DorothyL and on