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Dime Store Magic

by Kelley Armstrong

(Orbit, £6.99, 462 pages, paperback, published February 2004; ISBN 1-84149-3323-6 .)

Review by Meredith

Dime Store Magic is Kelley Armstrong's third book, and the first not to feature Elena, the world's only female werewolf. Elena plays cover scana bit part in this novel (a couple of phone calls), but instead DSM focuses on a character first introduced in Stolen, Armstrong's second book. This is Paige Winterbourne, a 23-year-old witch and leader of the witches' organisation, the Coven, in the USA.

Dime Store Magic is also the first of Armstrong's books to be labelled 'in the Women of the Otherworld series'. Seeing this, I was prepared for disappointment. Series too often become routine, with cardboard characters and no genuine development. However, DSM is a good, entertaining read, and Armstrong's fourth book, Industrial Magic, is excellent. So in this case, it looks as if the books are going from strength to strength, regardless of the dreaded 'series' label.

In style and partly in content, Armstrong's books are vaguely reminiscent of Laurel Hamilton's 'Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (trademark)' series. (The 'Women of the Otherworld' label has not yet been trademarked, but it might not be long in coming.) There is a bright, modern, assertive young female protagonist, a world with a wide range of supernatural characters, and fair helpings of sex, violence and humour.

This is a mix which works. DSM is a fun, well-paced and easy-to-read occult thriller, packed with plenty of eventful action, and even better, it actually has a decent and engaging plot.

Now by witch, Armstrong does not mean New Age Wiccan types. Wiccans make an appearance part-way through the book, and thoroughly alarm Paige when a group of them appear naked -- no, sorry, for them it's 'sky-clad' -- in her back garden. Having begun a cleansing ceremony, they invite Paige to "unburden yourself of your earthly vestments and join us ... ", an offer she is happy to refuse.

No, Paige's witchcraft is hereditary, hard work, and hidden. To all outward appearances, she is a perfectly ordinary young woman, trying to forge a career, get on with her neighbours, and hope for a boyfriend. But in Armstrong's world, there are several supernatural races living, in secret, side by side with humans. As well as werewolves and vampires, there are hereditary witches, all female, and their hereditary enemies, male sorcerers.

Aided and abetted by an evil half-demon, a powerful sorcerer is trying to gain custody of Paige's teenage ward, Savannah. This young girl promises to have even greater witchly powers than Paige, so is a prize for any supernatural organisation, let alone a sorcerous Cabal which focuses on making money and gaining more power.

So Paige faces a custody battle in both the human and the supernatural worlds. In her struggle against these powerful enemies, Paige assumes she can rely on the members of her Coven. However, the Coven has become a conservative, elderly and weak organisation, whose main aim is to avoid publicity and trouble. Instead, Paige slowly begins to realise that her greatest ally might turn out to be a renegade sorcerer-lawyer!

During the course of the book Paige has to overturn several of her assumptions about the supernatural world she partly lives in. She develops and matures as a person, and therefore becomes a more engaging character. And, as she becomes more complex, so too does the world Armstrong describes.

Although it is overall fast-paced and well written, Dime Store Magic does suffer occasionally from a fairly common flaw of clunky, pedestrian, over-writing. For example: "It felt good to get it off my chest, to talk to someone who'd understand. She offered to come and help, and I can't describe how good it felt to hear that. Unfortunately, I had to refuse. Elena understood, but ... should I change my mind, I only needed to call. I don't think she knew how much I appreciated that."

Not a major problem, if this sort of thing is my only criticism.

There seems to be plenty of scope for further stories in this series. I hope so, and can certainly recommend them.

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