REVIEW: BLESSED AND CURSED ALIKE
Of motorcycles and magic...
I'd purchased BLESSED AND CURSED ALIKE years ago at a local book shop that also happened to be an Independent Press. My interaction with the person keeping the shop was a bit strange, so I will admit that I mostly bought this book out of awkwardness, but in an effort to actually read the books I already own, but have never gotten to, I wanted to give this one a try.
HOW I RATED IT
3.5/5 While this was not the high-octane urban fantasy that the back cover advertises, I did enjoy the ride through this atmospheric and character-driven magical mystery even though I wanted more out of the characterization and the ending.
The cast of this story was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It's hard to tell at first who's important to the story and who's not as there are a number of different people introduced. The perspective will hop around quite a bit, but tends to follow Zade, a motorcycle currier, and Dis, a dispatcher for the delivery company that Zade works for. Out of these two, I really only found myself enjoying Dis for most of the story, but I liked how tough and unyielding Zade was, so I ended up liking her character in the last 30% or so of the novel. Other characters like Otter, Avery, Boon, and Bone, all came off as a little bland for me in spite of their interesting names, but there were a couple of antagonist characters that I enjoyed (I just don't want to spoil them for anyone).
I think the biggest thing that felt off for me is that these characters go from a hard, tough biker stereotype to almost Hallmark Channel levels of sappy sometimes in the span of a single paragraph. I liked that they were all a little awkward, but I did wish that there were some stronger and more meaningful connections formed between them. Even a characters who form romantic relationships didn't resonate with me as being all that close which made the fact that this story is so centered around this cast a bit of a drawback for me. I also wished that the characters had stronger motives or personal goals to make their threads more exciting. They felt realistic in that most of them are just trying to live their lives, make money, and find love. I guess I just like there to be something a little juicier in fictional characters and Dis was really the only one that felt like he had a "mission" of any kind.
At first, I thought that this was set in an American city within the world as we know it. I don't know if this is a spoiler or not, but I slowly came to realize that this is actually an alternate world/reality of some kind that is just very similar to ours. There are little world building details like characters throwing three middle fingers instead of one as a vulgar gesture which were nice, subtle ways to differentiate this world from ours, but I wish that there was a stronger sense of setting established right away especially since this isn't actually our world.
What I do think came off very nicely was the overall atmosphere. Everything is shrouded in this air of mystery and I absolutely love that in a story. Once I figured out that we were in another type of world, I enjoyed looking for all the little differences (though I did wish there were more of them) and I found myself wanting to know more about how magic worked here. The magic itself was very interesting as well. I liked the idea of it being more subtle with practitioners trying to influence luck instead of hurling fireballs across the street. The result is a much more low-key type of fantasy that felt more like magical realism than anything, but did fit the overall vibe of the story. Not everything is especially well defined when it came to some of the magic though. There are curses mentioned, but not really explained as well as mythological deities that some characters believe in, but are described in only the vaguest of terms. The cumulative effect is that these elements felt more like occult-inspired window dressing rather than something with more meaning to the majority of the story.
As I mentioned previously, this is much more of a slow-burn mystery type book with mystical elements than the high-energy urban fantasy thriller that the back blurb makes this out to be. While I didn't mind that this was slower paced and am not taking off any points because of this, I think it's important to go into a book with the right expectations. I would also say that the conspiracy promised as part of the blurb was far less wild than it sounded. While I found some of the antagonists to be interesting, I think there needed to be more time spent on their nefarious deeds and sinister intentions.
Because the narrative is so heavy on the characters, I think that puts a ton of pressure on their characterization and how they interact with the rest of the cast. I came to enjoy the dynamic between Zade and Dis, but just didn't vibe with any of the other interactions much. Your enjoyment of this book will largely depend on how well or how poorly these work for you. One other minor thing that kept me from feeling fully engrossed is how some of the scenes were "cut." There are very clear section breaks marked with weird symbols that I never quite grasped the meaning of, but the paragraph to paragraph breaks could sometimes be abrupt and disorienting for me.
As this is an independently published book by an indie press, I don't want to be too harsh about the cover design or formatting, but I think that these elements are just as important as with a book published by "the big five" and are important for making the author's work as enjoyable to read as possible. I didn't hate the cover design at all although I found it to be rather bland and I didn't think it captured the feeling of the story especially well. It does have a simple yet striking spine, which is a good thing since that's likely what you spend the most time looking at when the book is shelved. What I really want to give the publisher a hard time over though is that the cover material felt really odd. It has this sort of rubbery texture that felt a little gross (for lack of a better word) to hold and I am not entirely sure why they went with this choice, but I hope that they stop printing books with whatever that was. The front cover also has not one, but two bright yellow built-in "stickers" that clash horribly with the already mediocre cover art. While it's great that the book received some accolades, I just don't understand why publishers love to ruin covers with sticker-shaped blemishes on front covers. I don't think anyone likes them and they only ever make me LESS likely to buy a book. In terms of the interior, I appreciated all the little symbols and simple artwork that was included. I found the font to be a little tough to look at for some reason, making it hard to read for longer sittings. I think it had more to do with the size than anything since the font itself didn't seem too crazy and the spacing was generous.
While I would recommend a Kindle/eBook version of this book, there doesn't appear to be one available which I think is a huge disservice to the author in this day and age. This also serves as further motivation for me to donate my copy in hopes that it finds a home with someone who will love it more than I did as well as try to help this story get a little more exposure.
In spite of weird (and probably petty) gripes about the publishing quality as well as some fundamental issues I had with the characters and world, I really did enjoy the story. For most of the book, I felt like this would be a solid 4/5 for me, but with it being such a slow build up, I felt like it needed a much stronger ending than the one we got. I didn't think it was predictable or boring, just abrupt. I think there may have been some wasted potential with the characters and the more supernatural elements of the worldbuilding, but the air of mystery and intrigue that permeates throughout kept me reading to find out more. If you are looking for something that's moody and atmospheric with a heavy emphasis on it's characters, then I'd definitely suggest you giving this one a try. Those that are more into contemporary mysteries and perhaps even literary fiction may enjoy this a great deal. Those that are more fans of urban mysteries, may just want to go in with adjusted expectations, but I think there is still something here for that crowd as well.