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Some risky choices, but well worth the read: 3,5 stars
on April 30, 2010
Always on the lookout for new, exciting Urban Fantasy material, I came across MIND GAMES by Carolyn Crane. It's the start to a new urban fantasy series that also includes superhero comic and science fiction elements. The concept promises an exceptional read: a hypochondriac heroine reforms criminals by pumping them full with her fear.
Vein star syndrome - those three little words have ruined Justine Jones' life. She's aware of being a hypochondriac, but in her darkest moment nothing matters but her fear. Panic attacks, countless hospital visits, enormous debts and broken relationships are the result.
A visit to a Mongolian restaurant offers her a chance to turn her life around.
Sterling Packard is a High Cap, who uses his dangerous power for the greater good (or so he says). He reads people, knows their darkest secrets, desires and fears. Breaking people is his specialty, reforming criminals his goal. Packard has taught a group of psychopaths how to pump their violent emotions into others. They whittle away at their targets until they break and start a new life. In exchange the psychopaths are freed of their dangerous emotions.
Packard could use a hypochondriac like Justine, but the young woman mistrusts his intentions.
MIND GAMES is an exceptional read, unfortunately that's not always to its advantage. Let's get the negative out of the way first.
From the first sentence, I knew something was off. Blame the undeniable skill of the author, the interesting concept that pulled me in or my obliviousness, but I didn't notice until page 70 that the story is written in present tense. That's an odd choice, a risky one to boot. And to be perfectly honest, even after discovering the fact, the feeling of offness never completely left me. I contacted the author and she told me the reason for her choice lies in the second book and present tense was the only way pull off that part of the story. Now I can't wait to see whether the risk pays off. An interview at the end of the book or an afterword addressing this issue (and other interesting facts) would have been a good idea in my opinion.
Keeping up the flow and tension is not an easy thing to do in present tense. Crane does a good job. Only in the middle I wish she had tightened things up a bit more. After we got to know the most important characters and the basic concept there's a bit of a lull, while Justine tries to adapt to the new situation. What happens is necessary, but I wish Crane had combined some scenes and cut some of the more gratuitous erotic scenes.
Enough with the negative, let me tell you why MIND GAMES is an entertaining book and definitely worth a second look. Concept, characters and plot are exceptional in a good way.
Despite it being hard for me to connect with her (in part I blame the present tense), I love the heroine. Yes, Justine is a hypochondriac and she spends a lot of time worrying about her health (which is completely out of my range of experience), but she never wallows in self-pity. The young woman might wish she was normal, but she does her best to enjoy her life as it is. I admire that. Justine is a good person, but not a saint. When faced with difficult moral decisions, she tries to do the right thing, but acknowledges her weaknesses and failures. That makes her very human and very likable.
Other characters move between shades of grey, too. There are no obvious bad or good guys - or you discover that there's more to them than you previously thought. I love being able to argue from (almost) every character's point of view, to ask myself what I would do in their situations. It shows that the author has put a lot of thought into building her cast and that she didn't want to take the easy route out.
Apart from the concept and the heroine, I truly love, love, love the ending. It's brilliant, though I suspect that some people might be put off by it. It's unusual for the genre, surprising, completely true to the setting and the characters and best of all, it gives Justine a chance to shine. The more urban fantasy I read the more I find endings to be interchangeable or clichéd. This ending, however, could be carried out by no one but Justine Jones. She puts all of her strengths and weaknesses into it, and everything she has learned through the course of the story. Love it.
If I were Carolyn Crane's publisher, I probably wouldn't have introduced her with this novel. Crane is a good author with great potential and that's obvious in her debut. However she's made some risky choices that might not work for everyone. I know that some didn't work for me.
That being said, I believe in this series and can't wait to see how it pans out.