Forthcoming urban fantasy Unleashed (Ace) by John Levitt is the sequel to Dog Days and New Tricks. It follows the exploits of a spell-casting jazz guitarist and his magic doggie. Well, sort of a doggie.
The blend of urban fantasy and detective fiction seems like a sure-fire win. We can seen the modern roots of both in none other than Edgar Allen Poe. There are early examples of the Occult Detective such as Professor Flaxman-Low or the hard to find Victor Iff stories by Aleister Crowley. The type shows up often in TV, comics, and books; the scruffy-looking rugged individualist — a wizard for hire, freelance exorcist, or just a jumped-up London street punk with a pack of Silk Cuts and a noggin full of of Arcane Lore.
I've often been let down by these paranormal investigators in novels. Glenn Cook, Jim Butcher, and Simon R. Green have written very popular series of this type but the appeal is of a the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top variety. It can be fun, addictive but really just popcorn fare. Only Mike Carey's Felix Castor series has ever made me go, "wow, this is some good writing!" Even with some "surprise" twists that I could see coming in the first third of the book, Carey approaches the story like a hard-boiled thriller of the first water, not a parody. While not yet of this calibre, John Levitt's Dog Days series combines a gritty street sense with a realistic use of magic — for a given value of reality, of course.
As we learned from this year's World Fantasy Con, a world where the supernatural is real and commonplace is going to be very different from the one we know. It's ridiculous to assume that, oh let's say St. Louis, would be recognizable with demons and vampires running around openly. There may be subcultures that think they are underground and hidden (BDSM, Goths, Accordion Players) but the truth is the general population is just trying hard to ignore them. I just don't buy that actual wizards and the like could remain hidden from the rest of society. A common conceit in these contemporary urban fantasy worlds is that all the magical types have agreed to keep their presence hidden from mere mortals. This is because, umm... peasants with pitchforks and torches will tax them out of existence? I'm a bit fuzzy on that part. To keep everybody in line there's usually some ancient organization imaginatively called the Watchers, or The Council of Elders.
In Levitt's series people magical abilities ("practitioners" in North America, the Brits still use the term "sorcerers") have always been around but in very small numbers. They are by and large all loners not big on hierarchical structures and content to remain hidden from view. In each city or region there is always one practitioner with more talent and ambition than the others who enforces the general agreement to not freak out the squares. In San Francisco this self-appointed chief is Victor, supercilious with a vast fortune of mysterious origin. He reminds me a bit like a more generous version of the second eponymous character in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Victor is willing to let the others play magician but ready to destroy anyone who uses magic for personal gain or threatens to reveal the game to the mundane world. To that effect he hires other talented practitioners to sniff out troublemakers and ride herd on the local magic community.
Our protagonist Mason (everyone has just one name because they're cool like that) was one of Victor's enforcer but left to pursue a career in music. Fortunately Mason is a very talented guitarist and makes a comfortable if bohemian living playing in local jazz clubs. Poor but without Victor breathing down his neck, he's glad to tool around in his beat-up old van, drifting in and out of disastrous romances, and hanging out with Lou, his dog, sort of. Lou looks like a miniature Doberman Pinscher with undocked ears and tail. In reality he is an ifrit, magical creature that acts as a familiar for a select lucky few practitioners. Mason and others with ifrits are source of jealousy in their community but no one knows where these creatures come from or why they only choose certain people. Lou may be smarter and stronger than a real dog with preternatural senses but he still has a dog's brain or lack there of. This loveable scamp sniffs butts, burrows through trash cans for the choice meals, and is terribly concerned about the threat squirrels pose to modern society. I am happy to report that the magic dog does not talk. That would have been unbearable.
I find choice of the term Ifrit for Louie and his ilk to be odd. They usually appear as smallish animalsl suitable for perching on laps or shoulders, but have been glimpsed in what may be their true form. Is there a connection between them and the beings "of smokeless fire" from Arabic legend? Other strange creatures occasionally turn up. Some are former practitioners who have become too strong and begin to resembling trolls or werewolves of legend. Japanese hungry ghosts or demons out of medieval grimores can also be summoned for nefarious purposes. There's even a Wendigo that's more Algernon Blackwood than Ojibwa legend and becomes something like a very disturbing Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. Even scholars like Mason's friend and mentor, Eli, cannot explain what these entities really are, manifestations of the practitioners' will clothed in cultural archetypes or visitors from Another Place entirely.
Actually it's odd that as old as the magic practitioner community is, they're fuzzy about where magic comes from and why it even works— the characters address this openly and I can't decide if this is a bug or a feature. Levitt has been dancing around the question of ifrits and other mysteries in the last three books. He might be making it up as he goes along but there seems to be some sort of plan. I always enjoy his writing enough to let him lead me on for another book.
Of course in each book Some Danger will threaten San Francisco's loose-knit practitioner community. Mason with Lou by his side, like a knight errant of old, plunge into the fray to find What the Hell is Going On and save his friends. Despite their differences snooty Victor is happy to use Mason to flush out the danger and refers to shiftless young man as "his investigator". This is not due to Mason's keen analytical mind, he's the first to admit he's not the swiftest on the uptake. What Victor values is the lad's unique expression of magical talent. A gift that appears related to his musical ability – Improvisation.
Even powerful practitioners rely on carefully prepared materials, complicated chants, or herbal concoctions. A small minority follow the Black Arts and use all the sinister drama of pentagrams, black candles, and blood sacrifice. Other than being more dickish than average these Black Practioners seem to be an unfairly maligned bunch. There's something about ritual that makes it easier for practitioners to focus their will and power. Mason doesn't need that, he can borrow what he needs from his immediate surroundings. On the fly he blends the qualities of moonlight, the solidity of a brick wall and an abandoned umbrella to fashion a protective spell. He can borrow flight from a flock of pigeons or the absorbency of a thick carpet for a stealthy approach. This makes Mason a the go-to guy in sudden and unfamiliar circumstances. I think Victor also values Mason as Cannon Fodder but hey, that's what makes a great administrator.
The passages describing this type of magic have a fluid creativity that's a lot harder than it looks. Levitt uses this same grace and authority writing about Mason's music; whether the deep internal process of doing a solo on stage or the serious business of hanging out in bars and jamming. I recognized a lot of familiar scenes setting up gigs, moving gear, and joking with the band (Hey, What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians? A drummer!). It should be of no surprise to find that author John Levitt is also an accomplished jazz guitarist who spends part of his year in San Francisco. I've seen him play and he's got some serious chops. I also am very impressed with his descriptions of my hometown. He may possibly write the most authentic modern San Francisco I've ever read in genre fiction. Many others (Sorry, Chris Moore) come close but rely on too many postcard shots. Levitt with economy and an unflinching eye, portrays the look and shifting character of our many different neighborhoods.
So yeah, write what you know. Levitt also knows gritty street scenes and has a keen grasp of the Crime Novel and that is very evident in the Dog Days series . He wrote two thrillers, Carnivores and Ten of Swords, about a decade back as J.R. Levitt. He also served eight years with the Salt Lake City Police Department. Cops have the best stories, every day they meet a wide variety of interesting people having the worst day of their lives. You could see how this would drive many officers crazy or turn to writing. Levitt told me that he feels Urban Fantasy owes more to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler than to J.R.R. Tolkien or E.R. Eddison. He loves this sub genre and is currently at work on the fourth Dog Days book. I'm looking forward to seeing the mysteries about Mason and Lou's magical world answered but I want more from John Levitt. I'd love to see him drop this series and try something with a little more bite. This was a fine read, much more satisfying than the guilty pleasure popcorn of the Dresden Files or the Nightside books but still a bit too... cute. The Crime Thriller and Detective Novel are very well suited for the trapping of the fantastic and I believe readers are hungry for something meatier than the usual fare. Just tossing out a bone here. Fetch!
Commenter Grey_Area is known to all the magic doggies of San Francisco as Chris Hsiang, he has bacon.