A Flash of Hex, by Jes Battis (Ace, 2009)

Life is never dull for Tess Corday, part of Vancouver’s Occult Special Investigation team. She and her partner Derrick have just been called in to investigate a ritual slaying, a horrible crime that defies nature through the use of blood magic. Unfortunately, it’s just one in a series of increasingly-nasty killings taking place in several cities, and things are going to get much worse before they’re done. The victims are all children of powerful mage families, and the pressure to solve this case is coming from all angles, both political and societal. Something about this case is striking close to home for Tess, and as she gets to the bottom of a centuries-old mystery, she’ll learn things about herself, her past, and her family she never dreamed possible. She’ll push herself to the breaking point, and sorely test the patience of her superiors, all to get the job done. To save those she cares about, it might even be worth it. Of course, it doesn’t help that she’s been ordered to seek out the help of necromancer Lucien Agrado … the one man Tess has serious feelings for, the one relationship absolutely forbidden her by the nature of her job. Awkward? You bet. Good luck with this one, Tess.

Where do I start with describing the many ways in which A Flash of Hex, like its predecessor, Night Child, is awesome? For one thing, the cast inhabiting this world is both eclectic and believable, fully fleshed-out with complex personalities and rich interplay. Tess herself has formed an odd family unit, consisting of her partner Derrick (who’s as out and proud about his sexuality as he’s closeted about being a telepath) and Mia, the teenager (and potential vampire) they gained custody of following a previous case. As unlikely a group as they are, there’s enough heart and spirit in their dealings with one another to sell it as a perfectly natural thing. Mia, it should be noted, is smart and sassy, stealing the show with every scene and every comment she makes. This helps to provide a great deal of the tension-breaking humor that threads through this book’s otherwise dark storyline. A new and welcome addition to the cast is Miles Sedgwick, an out-of-town consultant with some unusual talents of his own, and a knack for lighting Derrick’s fires. And of course there’s Lucien, who’s a pretty good guy for a necromancer, and so very clearly the man for Tess, job restrictions notwithstanding.

It’s not all about the characterization and emotional interaction here. The plot’s intense, clever, and multi-layered, the sort of storyline that’ll keep readers guessing until the very end. It takes some unexpected turns along the way, never quite letting the reader get too complacent. It’s pretty dark at times – Battis isn’t afraid to get down and dirty and visceral when the occasion calls for it – but we never quite lose sight of the light, or what the characters are fighting for. Add in the clever application of semi-real world science and forensics, and you have the perfect melding of urban fantasy and CSI. The urban fantasy field benefits quite nicely from books with this level of intelligence and soul to them. A Flash of Hex is even better than the first in the series, which set a high bar all on its own. I also have to award bonus points for the positive way Battis works in queer elements, including gay and trans characters. This is one series I can’t get enough of.

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