BY STEPHEN BLACKMOORE
Necromancer Eric Carter’s problems keep getting bigger. Bad enough he’s the unwilling husband to the patron saint of death, Santa Muerte, but now her ex, the Aztec King of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, has come back — and it turns out that Carter and he are swapping places. As Mictlantecuhtli breaks loose of his prison of jade, Carter is slowly turning to stone. To make matters worse, both gods are trying to get Carter to assassinate the other. But only one of them can be telling him the truth and he can’t trust either one. Carter’s solution? Kill them both.
If he wants to get out of this situation with his soul intact he’ll have to go to Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead, and take down a couple of death gods while facing down the worst trials the place has to offer him: his own sins.
AMBER LOVE 24-JAN-2017 The next Vodka O’Clock episode features author STEPHEN BLACKMOORE. Meanwhile, read my review as you consider pre-ordering the book. Content is supported by the monthly tip jar donors at Patreon.com/amberunmasked.
I know the Eric Carter series is a couple books in, but Hungry Ghosts was my first foray into it. I found myself breezing through it and not wanting to put it down. The first person perspective sets readers inside Carter’s head and along for the ultimate amusement park ride without waiting in line for three hours.
Protagonist Eric Carter is quite the anti-hero. He kills at will when he feels people don’t deserve any more chances; yet it’s obvious he has a heart for people he allows into his life. In Hungry Ghosts, he takes out a mansion full of cartel members who come back to him in the afterlife, but they aren’t the only ones.
As a necromancer, Carter can move in an out of the worlds of life and death though each afterlife has its own rules and rulers. Carter’s adventures in Hungry Ghosts is to fix a problem that began earlier. He’s already left LA with a curse on him; the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli has embedded a piece of himself inside Eric; his wife Sante Muerte has done similar to another necromancer named Tabitha, only she killed Tabitha to create her avatar. The difference is that Tabitha’s soul was a willing participant to be this type of reincarnated goddess.
Before Carter’s adventure really takes off, readers get all they need to know about his powers as a mage and necromancer. His parents were mages, but his sister Lucy never developed her powers as expected. Carter uses charms, talismans, blood, and regular firearms to get his jobs done. His favorite and fastest form of spellcasting is “sharpie magic” where he writes his spell on a My Name Is sticker to manipulate the straights he comes across.
Carter also sees a variety of ghosts which aren’t tethered to specific locations of their deaths though some types are. There are Echoes and Wanderers and every kind of tormented soul that hasn’t found peace. If a person doesn’t leave one behind, it’s the best possible outcome. Apparently being eaten by a ghost is one of the worst ways to go. Despite the abundance of ghosts in this story, it’s really about the gods trying to come back into power.
Blackmoore takes the reader on an adventurous journey through the Aztec belief of the underworld explaining that there are afterlives for each religion as long as there are followers. Carter has difficult decisions to make along the entire journey. The more magic he uses, the more he swaps places with the god trapped in jade. His skin become more overtaken by the jade with each new obstacle until he’s almost gone by the final battle.
The god and the goddess have manipulated Carter into the constant self doubt and second guessing. To save the one, he has to kill the other. Since Carter is forced into this marriage situation with Santa Muerte, he’s pretty pissed at her. He didn’t ask for it and he didn’t consent to replace her groom Mictlantecuhtli, but he’s stuck with a ring on his finger.
As if dealing with the two of them weren’t enough, Carter was also in debt to Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god who managed to lose any real reigning power he had because he sided with the Spanish conquistadors. Carter’s past run in with wind elementals meant a god of air and fire like Quetzalcoatl knew all about him. That’s three gods trying to push around one necromancer.
One of the first things Tabitha and Carter encounter on their quest is the creepy island of dolls. It sounds like something from a “Weird NJ Magazine” feature.
“True to its name Isla de las Muñecas is covered in dolls. Perched in the crooks of trees, wrapped to branches with wire, duct taped to a couple of tiny shacks, strung from the timbers of a decaying, log fence. Large and small, weathered and cracked and coated with grime. Kewpie dolls, porcelain dolls, clown dolls, rag dolls, troll dolls, bobbleheads, marionettes, puppets. And nailed to each doll is a child’s screaming ghost.
Like the dolls they’re all different types. Some look to be infants, some toddlers. None looks to be more than five or six years old. Their phantom light casts erratic shadows as they writhe in their plastic prisons, struggle against their bonds.”
The scene is so vivid, you can smell the rancid bloody water and the decay of children’s remains.
“The man who built this place didn’t know what he was doing. Story goes he found a little girl drowned in the canal. Tried to save her and couldn’t. Later he found a doll floating in the canal and stuck it in a tree. Then he hung more and more dolls. Did it for fifty years. Folks figured he was still trying to save that girl, I guess.”
Making his way through the island of dolls is just one of Carter’s challenges as the champion of the story. And like every battle he goes through, there’s a twist to it.
Carter has to deal with running into visions of his dead loved ones while trying not to go insane from the mists around a dangerous obsidian mountain. The souls haven’t been able to cross through the mists in five hundred years so when Carter succeeds, he unclogs the jam and they can try to get through again.
Tabitha is a technically dead woman who can still walk and talk as herself even though she’s Santa Muerte’s avatar. Her relationship, such as it can be called, with Carter is questioned every step of the journey. He can’t trust her, but something tells him the real Tabitha is in there somewhere. Carter has lost so many people in his lifetime, that he’s clearly numb. There’s no romantic notions here between him and Tabitha. He considers saving her soul, only because he wants to believe that she doesn’t deserve a worse fate.
The descriptions get more gruesome and vivid as they wind through the underworld. The souls have lives just like above. In the early levels of this hellscape, they even have demonic cars and shelters, but everything is made of bone, sinew, and rotting flesh. As the duo get closer to the palace of the gods, the environment changes and feels more like the living world to them. Carter has more sympathy for the souls and isn’t sure if he should really burn the place down in order for a new age of Quetzalcoatl to begin.
“When it comes to death I’m used to being the smartest guy in the room, or at least the guy who knows what the hell is going on. Someone kicks, I know they’re dead, but not, you know, dead dead. Their soul goes somewhere or it sticks around. They don’t get destroyed unless something actively makes it happen. But I’ve only deal with ghost, spirits in transition. Souls who’ve moved on? Above my pay grade.
The souls in Mictlan are just people. I might not like some of them, but people are people wherever you go. Some of them are good. Some of them aren’t.”
Hungry Ghosts is about Eric Carter having to answer to three different Aztec gods when he really doesn’t care about them at all. By the end he’s so worn out, he doesn’t even care if he survives the ordeal. As a gringo, Carter admits he has lessons to learn about every mythology he encounters including this one. He’ll always be studying to do his job saving souls, but he’s reluctant to be the white savior. Carter grows as a character and learns to take big steps in his actual living life rather than spending all his time solving the problems of the underworld. Blackmoore’s research is thorough and a story about Aztec gods could definitely be refreshingly new to readers.
FAN CONTEST BY THE AUTHOR:
Deadline is Feb 10 to get something together to submit to win a set of the loteria cards by Galen Dara:
“You gotta send me a picture. Make some fan art; cosplay, photos, stick figure drawings, I don’t care. Draw a scene from a book. Take a photo inspired by one. Show me your Santa Muerte altar. Cosplay a gender flipped character, whatever. Or take a shot of yourself with a copy of DEAD THINGS, BROKEN SOULS, or if you get it in time, HUNGRY GHOSTS (or a shot of the cover on your Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.). But ya gotta surprise me with it. Make me laugh, back away slowly in horror, or more likely just call the police. MAKE IT EPIC.”
FAN CONTEST #2:
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! THERE’S A FAN CONTEST BY VODKA O’CLOCK TOO!