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Magic Bites by Ilona AndrewsUK edition2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsComplete the following sentence: If it looks like a Jim Butcher knockoff, flies like a Jim Butcher knockoff, and quacks like a Jim Butcher knockoff, then ________________________________.

Ilona Andrews, a pseudonymous moniker for the husband-and-wife writing duo of Andrew and Ilona Gordon, has added yet another title — surprise surprise, the launch of a series — to the increasingly popular, and derivative, urban fantasy/noir subgenre. Magic Bites doesn’t exactly bite. Its storytelling is entirely competent, even exciting when it needs to be. But only readers who have not already sampled the many books on the racks that it enthusiastically strives to imitate will come away thinking that it offers anything beyond the average. This is The Dresden Files Lite

Now that I think of it, there is probably a healthy contingent of readers out there who only want to read books that are exactly like the last dozen or so books they’ve read, and who will lap up Magic Bites like thirsty werewolves. I wish them well. But I’m the kind of guy who’s frustrated by pop-lit copycatting, especially when the writer in question has enough latent talent not to have needed to resort to it. The Andrews’ have such promise as a writing team, I really want them to better apply their own imaginations in creating fresh story concepts for future novels, rather than simply playing in someone else’s sandbox.

In Magic Bites, Atlanta stands in for Butcher’s Chicago. The authors have tweaked the premise in order to give their story a semblance of originality. Here, magic strikes the city in intermittent waves. Technology goes through blackout periods in which wild magic runs the show. Exactly how the rules of this world work are a mite hazy. We’re not given much of an idea why this happened, or how, or where all the creatures of the night who roam Atlanta’s largely ruined cityscape came from, or any of that. But the story is given a suitably “grim-n-gritty” stage on which to play out. Magic Bites does have, if not much novelty, certainly an impressive texture.

With the book’s heroine, Kate Daniels, we basically have Harry Dresden’s kid sister, right down to the rote jaded, world-weary attitude. Kate is a freelance mercenary working for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, which sounds a little more like a hospital than a guild of mages who battle evil. Determined to solve the murder of her friend and mentor, she stumbles upon — what else? — an elaborate plot to pit Atlanta’s two biggest scary-monster factions, the vampiric People and the lycanthropic Pack, together in an all-out war. You wouldn’t think this would be a bad thing for the regular human citizens of Atlanta. If it weren’t for the fact that an even more ruthless, practically invincible beast called an upir is the one doing the plotting, Kate might be happy to let the vamps and werecritters wipe each other out. But with her mentor to be avenged, and the rest of the city under the threat of an unstoppable killing machine, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Magic Bites isn’t, like, lousy, by any means. Indeed, there were a few concepts I rather liked. In contrast to Butcher’s irritating anti-science attitude, Andrews’ world is one in which science and magic strive to co-exist. I dug the CSI-ish little touches. Forensic science here involves something called an m-scan, which detects residual magic at a crime scene.

The story gets the job done. Kate Daniels is fairly likable, too, even though the shadow of Dresden never quite leaves her side. We get the usual coterie of allies, enemies, a possible love-interest for the paranormal romance crowd, red herrings, all culminating in the expected boss-monster battle and a right-on-cue sequel setup. Final analysis, it’s a story that would be the kind of escapism I’d recommend for a rainy day, if it weren’t for the presence of a hugely bestselling superstar writer who’s already done everything that this book does, and better. Reality bites.

Followed by Magic Burns.