• Book Review: 'Graves Pact' (Landon Graves Book 1) by Matthew Stinson

    What else does a man have to lose when he had already sold his soul to a devil? More importantly, how will he change? These are the questions readers would ask when reading Matthew Stinson's urban fantasy novel and Book 1 of the Landon Graves series, Graves Pact.

    Landon Graves is an FBI agent who became a warlock after selling his soul to a devil. He likes to keep his personal life to himself. Perhaps to focus on his work and protect the innocents from the inevitable forces that would haunt him. Or maybe, to protect them from himself and the demon inside him. He's a professional, no doubt; somewhat Dresden-esque when it comes to dealing with magic.

    Magic, as I understand it, was basically about focusing and directing ambient energies toward a desired effect. It was about making connections between disparate objects for that focused energy to react. And a lot more mumbo-jumbo that I couldn't even pretend to understand.

    At least, he has a general knowledge of it. He admits that he's an amateur ritualist, a vulnerable yet versatile wizard who seems like he has nothing to lose. His FBI background story is shallow, and there's some talk about his divorced life, but his past is not as intriguing as the case he's trying to solve.

    While fans of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files will find some familiar urban fantasy elements in Stinson's novel, the early chapters reminded me more of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Graves has to investigate a murder case, analyze the puzzling details in sigils and glyphs, and find the one who's trying to cast a ritual spell that might unleash apocalypse. He spends a lot of time being inquisitive rather than reckless and violent, taking his time to research without worrying what he has in stake. I wonder, what drives him to seek the truth?

    While he may be competent in casting spells, unlike Harry Dresden, he's more dependent on his allies and Alastor, the ruthless devil who ends up saving him when he gets into deep troubles. Alastor is a likable badass anti-hero who's actually more interesting than his host. The most entertaining part of the whole novel is when he takes full control of Graves' body, being ruthless and smart as he deals with a pimp while Graves watches his demon thrive unapologetically. Seeing Alastor's actions made him question about his true character, "If I resorted any means to survive, would I be different from Alastor?". He's often victimized because of his morality and heroism, but it's not his goodness that makes him really weak, it's his lack of courage to do what he thinks is wrong to gain power. He asks, "Is it such a sin to want to live?" Would he need to sacrifice honor for the sake of survival? I just wished Stinson explored the complexity of these inner conflicts more extensively instead of showing us a "hero" who lacks assertiveness.

    Thankfully, there's a couple of interesting supporting characters other than Alastor, that readers would find interesting: Detective Evelyn Mendoza, a character who resembles Karrin Murphy's independent personality from the Dresden Filles series; Bryce Campbell, a clever teenage wizard who somehow outsmarts the devil within Graves.

    The plot gets more intriguing when readers learn about the Gate Spell's significance, but some, like myself, would probably end up questioning what the hell is worth unraveling? We learn of the Fallen (like Alastor) and the Exiled (more powerful demons), but they're what we expect them to be - purely evil beings with nothing to lose, like Graves.

    By the end of the novel, I don't think most readers would ask what Graves would lose? The more fitting question would be: What could he possibly gain? He may see Alastor as an inescapable curse, but he's also been a blessing in disguise. The demon, of course, is unsympathetic but at least he's not as wimpy as the protagonist. Perhaps the sequel will show us his growth, not just as a warlock or a demon-host, but as a human.

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