There was a single line in the first few chapters of J.P. Sloan’s The Curse Merchant that convinced me to continue reading beyond the pages of the Kindle sample I had downloaded. “He had a ruddy tone to his face that gave him the look of a man who had been dying from the same heart attack for the past three years.” It was such a vivid and clever description, and Sloan’s narrative style was both compelling and entertaining. The main character didn’t offer much of a challenge, but was likeable enough for me to invest the time and money to finish the book.
The Curse Merchant is a dark urban fantasy set in modern day Baltimore. The protagonist is Dorian Lake, a peddler of hexes and charms who gets caught up in some darker deals when he’s asked to prevent the loss of his ex-lover’s soul. Seems she sold it to a local soul monger in exchange for personal and professional success two years earlier and the contract is about to come due. Now she wants out, and Dorian is her only hope.
The novel follows Lake’s efforts to resolve the crisis and overcome a variety of personal problems that crop up along the way. Some of this stuff seems a little contrived. Sloan is working too hard placing obstacles in the path of his protagonist, and it’s never as much fun when you can see the writing process. The final confrontation between Lake and his primary antagonist, Neil Osterhaus, plays out well enough, but feels ever so slightly anti-climactic.
The supporting characters are never that well developed, although generally Lake has enough depth to carry the story. The ex-lover, Carmen, has no redeeming qualities, and you have to wonder if Sloan created this character based on someone he hates. In addition to what feels like too many artificial obstacles, Lake’s character also makes too many mistakes. Yes, you want your characters to have some flaws, but personally I wouldn’t trust this bozo to handle my supernatural work. And that last mistake seemed like a lot of needless setup for the sequel. But Sloan writes prose like the best of them, and his entertaining style and delivery make up for the weak plot points and under-cooked characters.