Sal Brooks has been getting her little brother out of trouble all his life, but she never expected to have to face down literal demons for him. When Perry is seduced by a stolen book, Sal finds herself teaming up with a mysterious team of specialists to get it – and, with luck, Perry – back…
I passed on Bookburners when it first came out. I was a bit over urban fantasy at the times, so the paranormal pitch passed me by. 5 years – and 5 seasons – later, and I’m playing catch-up as my audio read… and flipping to the ebook edition when I take off my headphones because hot damn it’s addictive.
Let’s start with the core concept: books are dangerous. Open the wrong book, and you may find you can’t close it – let alone put it down. Any bookworm could tell you that. But this isn’t about being be-spelled by a good story – it’s about becoming the pawn of an ancient power. Some books contain demons within their pages and even well-meaning spirits have little grasp (and less interest) in the effect their powers have on humanity. It’s far too easy to be consumed by the magic at your fingertips – and I mean that entirely literally.
The Vatican – naturally – has ruthlessly-trained teams who deal with these things. They monitor the news for hints of paranormal activity, and send the best team for the job to get things back under control. If you’re lucky, they send Team Three, whose goal is to retrieve dangerous books and artefacts and lock them away in the Black Archives in Rome where nobody can use them. Nobody else, anyway…
Sal Brooks is a no-nonsense New York cop who gives us the much-needed outsider view (and moral perspective). She gets entangled in the affairs of the Black Archives after her brother steals a grimoire and promptly disappears from her apartment. Unwilling to accept the alternate facts she’s presented with, Sal puts her investigative skills to good use to find out what’s really going on – only to discover the world is far stranger and more dangerous place than even the streets of New York have prepared her for.
The result is an episodic paranormal action thriller in which Team Three travel around Europe capturing demons. If this were merely Demon of the Week it would be an entertaining formula, but each episode introduces new elements – from back story to world-building and antagonists – that make it clear nobody in this world is without sin before bringing it all together in a shattering finale. The result is a tense page-turner that takes time to examine its ethics (when the end is protecting the world from demons, are any means justified?) while delivering a fast-paced thrill ride with regular sides of full-blown horror.
If there’s one thing I’ve found about listening to series rather than eyeballing them, it’s that I don’t pick up on things like consistency of narrative voice between episodes. The smooth tones of Xe Sands were a delight to listen to, although be warned, she really can’t pull off Australian or Glaswegian accents! However, I do take my hat off to the writing team for consistently engaging prose and for a dynamite season structure; the authors make everything relevant, which is very satisfying.
If Bookburners has any flaws – and frankly I’m too biased to say right now – it would perhaps be that it focuses more on building plot than character; but I loved the members of Team Three unreservedly. They begin as archetypes – the priest, the hacker, the muscle, the researcher – but as Sal gets to know them better, they emerge as a passionately loyal found family willing to sacrifice everything in service to the mission …except each other. While the characters all develop enough to be interesting in their own right (and yes, of course Grace is my favourite), it’s their relationships that I couldn’t resist.
Come for CSI Vatican, stay for the unravelling secrets, ethical dilemmas, batshit antagonists (I particularly enjoyed the cyber-bio-punk cultists) and unexpectedly hilarious day off.
Bookburners is a collaborative work by Max Gladstone, Andrea Phillps, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Amal El-Mohtar and Brian Francis Slattery. It is available as serialised fiction or audio from Serial Box (seasons for sale individually, or all included in the new Serial Box membership). Season One is also available as a book/ebook from Saga Press.