In the ‘seedy underbelly of today’s occult underworld,’ Laytham Ballard is a rockstar. A modern necromancer wizard with West Virginian cracker roots, who first raised the dead at age ten, he’s inordinately proud of himself, has a powerful thirst to know everything there is to know about the occult, and he has no compunction about killing innocent people if it furthers his goals or takes him out of harm’s way. He was one of the Nightwise, an “honorable association of knight-magicians, who dedicate themselves to police those in the Life from excesses and protect this world from unnatural threats”, but he was kicked out. Now he’s constantly on the run, having pissed off, alienated or betrayed virtually everyone around him – and those are his friends. His enemies are much, much worse.
But Laytham does have a personal code of honor, and if he owes you, he keeps his word. So when Boj, his former (now estranged) partner, asks Laytham to find the man who was behind the cold blooded killing of his wife Mita, Laytham feels like he has to settle the score.
Problem is, the man responsible for Mita’s horrible death, Dusan Slorzack, is not just some garden variety criminal. His past includes war crimes, blood sacrifices, possible entanglement with the 9/11 conspiracy and other atrocities, and links not only to the Illuminati, but demons of all kinds. All leads as to his current whereabouts are dead ends. Literally. But once Laytham is committed to a job, nothing will shake him off, not even if it imperils his very soul. In fact, imperilment of his very soul seems to be something he courts. Death wish? No. And no fear of walking on the edge of the knife, either.
But maybe if Laytham knew how deeply that knife was going to cut, he would have had second thoughts about promising Boj his revenge…
Part of what makes Nightwise work is author R. S. Belcher’s confidence in his story and in his readers. He doesn’t worry about explaining every nuance of his tale, but instead offers up hints that are often more effective than heavy explication. For example, we are never given more than a mention of any of the intriguing exploits that are part of Laytham and Boj’s past. Yet because what is told in passing is related as actual experiences rather than hearsay, we readily accept them without question. So while we learn a lot about Laytham Ballard, we are also aware that we are only seeing a fraction of what this man has experienced, and have gotten only a glimpse of the ancient and powerful worlds through which he moves.
But this in no way insinuates that the story in Nightwise is thin. It’s fast paced, ever expanding, and atypical of supernatural tales in that while it has monsters, it stays deeply entrenched in the world of mankind. It’s intelligent. It’s also very raw and gritty. Depictions of human depravity are given plenty of ink, as well as an underhanded respect for alternative lifestyles and philosophies. Also, there’s lots of swearing and a whole heap of death and torture and blood and gore… but as an integral – and unapologetic – part of the story.
My only disappointment is that Mr. Belcher’s female characters are nowhere near as interesting as the rank and file men. There’s an attempt at making Megan, who gets the most “screen time”, full of potential, but she is little more than a prop; an intriguing and evocative prop, but a prop nonetheless. Still, that’s nowhere near a deal breaker.
Nightwise is a gripping, fast moving, explosive tale told in a voice that is both brash and acute. Laytham Ballard is a protagonist who is both honorable and abhorrent, charming and profane, the bad boy and the guy you definitely want on your side. But what he is up against is way worse. And no matter how rude, crude or downright selfish he may be, you’re going to be mighty glad he’s out there.
(R.S. Belcher’s second book of this series, The Night Dahlia, was just released on April 3, 2018.)