Early Review: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

Hard Spell (An Occult Crimes Investigation) by Justin GustainisHow did I get it: I was sent a review copy courtesy of Angry Robot Books. Hard Spell comes out on July 26th.

Why did I get it: I have been wanting to read this book literally for ages. I thought it looked like a really fun read too because I love the idea of a Supernatural Law & Order: CI/SVU. (This title will also count towards my Horror & Urban Fantasy Reading Challenge for 2011.)

How I would rate it: 4 out of 5 stars.


Stan Markowski is a Detective Sergeant on the Scranton PD’s Occult Crimes Investigation Unit.

Like the rest of America, Scranton’s got an uneasy ‘live and let unlive’ relationship with the supernatural. But when a vamp puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, that’s when they call Markowski. He carries a badge. Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.

File Under: Urban Fantasy [ Dial V For Vampire | Forbidden Spells | Bite Club | Scranton By Night ]

Review: In Hard Spell, the first book of the Occult Crimes Unit Investigation series, Stan, his partner, their boss, and their other associates work to ensure that normal and supernatural people (aka ‘supes’) get along by whatever means necessary. After dealing with some difficult cases, Stan Markowski finds himself investigating a series of gruesome vampire murders that might be part of a sacrificial ritual while also dealing with wizards, a cursed book, witchfinders, even more vampires, and a cultist out for revenge.

Despite the backwards way that information was occasionally passed on,* Gustainis’ writing was very solid and very engaging throughout. There were also a few typos, but that was nothing compared to a terrific amount of details, an excellent pace, the flow of events, and Stan Markowski and Karl Renfer’s partnership. Stan was very much a loner and very much –and somewhat desperately– married to his work. I loved his first person point of view. His sarcastic, more-than-slightly jaded take on things made sense given his job and really just the dangers lurking around every corner of Scranton. However, I was very thankful for Karl being there. He was able to provide a really great sidekick element to the book and also prevented Stan from retreating too deeply in on himself.

Over all, the world-building was excellent and wonderfully well-executed. Gustainis paints a very dark, gritty, edgy picture of a town swarming with supernatural and paranormal activity. While there are plenty of gray areas throughout the novel in regards to supes and several aspects of Stan’s primary case, I liked that the vampires, werewolves, ghouls, witches, and cultists were a lot more complicated than simply being good or evil. The way things were fleshed out in terms of the Occult Crimes Investigation Unit was very convincing and well-developed too. In addition, there is no romance here, plenty of swearing, and no real happy endings to be had, which I appreciated. Really, I was incredibly impressed by the level of believability this book had despite how very unbelievable everything was. I also enjoyed the humor of the book, particularly the darker aspects of it, as well as all of the pop-culture references. Particularly Karl’s love of all things Bond and Stan mentioning both Night Gallery and the Necronomicon.

All of that said, I did sort of wish that the female characters in Hard Spell hadn’t been so obviously assigned specific roles and relegated primarily to the background. There were women in a lot of scenes and a few of them were important minor characters like Rachel Proctor and Christine, but really they didn’t get to kick butt and take names so much as be rescued from overwhelming trouble and/or danger. I also find it a bit weird that the only female member of a SWAT team  featured later on in the book has to be bailed out by male teammates and that even the female Hellhound thrown into the mix was described as not being as intimidating as the male of the species.

Not wanting to focus too often or too hard on female characters is fine, of course. I have enjoyed plenty of books that has taken that approach such as the first two books of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, which does include female characters but is mostly about a druid named Attitcus, his dog, and his supernatural lawyers. But there’s also no reason to have a lot of female characters around only to have them read as very or at least slightly inferior to their male counterparts. Granted, this element of the book didn’t ruin the story for me or make me care any less for Stan or Karl, but it was –and still is– a bit troubling.

In conclusion, very, very good and pretty much exactly what I’d been hoping for. If you’ve been finding Urban Fantasy far too light on substance, far too heavy on romance, or far too light in general, I’d highly suggest checking out Hard Spell towards the end of July. I am also incredibly glad that this is the first book in the series because I definitely want more. I do hope that Evil Dark utilizes female characters in a better way, but for the most part I simply can’t wait to see what happens in book two.

Occasionally, I had to wait until the end of the chapter or section for Gustainis to reveal something Stan had known for a long, long time or that the person Stan had been talking to was a friend, relative, or colleague.

About April

I'm a librarian, reader, and writer whose main goal in life is to be able to swim in books the way Scrooge McDuck swims in money. Although my reading choices will always be wildly eclectic and I never plan on leaving any genre unexplored, my favorite reads tend to be Fantasy, Young Adult, Science Fiction, Gay Romance, or Historical Fiction. You can e-mail me at inspector[dot]librarian[at]gmail[dot]com.
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5 Responses to Early Review: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

  1. Hi, April.
    Thank you for a great review. I’ll try to be more egalitarian in my treatment of female characters in EVIL DARK (which is still in progress).
    Could I ask a favor? Would you be willing to upload your review to the book’s Amazon page? Even though the publication date is the 26th, the Kindle version is already out, so Amazon is allowing reviews to be posted. I’d appreciate it.
    If you ever buy stuff from Amazon UK, they will let you post the review there, too, if you’re so inclined.
    Thanks much.


    • You’re welcome and thanks for writing such a great book! I really can’t wait to read more about Stan and Karl. Or about Scranton in general.

      And I’ll post it to Amazon right now. Amazon UK too. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Reader’s Progress #29 | CSI: Librarian

  3. Wonderful review! 🙂 Sounds like a great read. I saw this book, but I’m so swamped with books now. Thank you for more insight into it. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Review of Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books

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