“Ebony Gate: The Pheonix Hoard, book 1” (Julia Vee & Ken Bebelle) is discordant. It’s got the elements of a proper UFDR but it’s just so epic. Our hero Emiko thinks she wasn’t good enough for her ex-boyfriend from a rich and powerful family. But her family is … one of the big eight and even more rich and powerful. She’s a dissappointment to her family — they wanted her to be a ninja-assassin and she … became a world-class ninja-assassin. Mid-book she’s worried that her business partners might learn her secret; which would be a great thing to worry about if she didn’t have 19 hours and 34 minutes to save San Fransisco from demons. In short, she’s written as down-trodden when she’s anything but and that’s, well … discordant.
But first, let’s go over the UFDR parts. The secret world is “Big Trouble in Little China”, but more secret. They mind-wipe or kill outsiders who find out. That’s easy because many of them have a natural magic power. Toughness or telekenisus or air blades, but also the ability to make all sorts of mind-affecting charms. It’s got a bit of Harry Potter “there’s a spell for that” silliness: when they need to repair a valuable magic item, Emiko remembers she might be able to find some repair-o-mancers. But overall the secret world is fine, and I’m curious what gets added in the next book. Oh, for more fun, they’re all actually refugees from another dimension.
She’s pathetic enough with sufficiently low self-esteem for this genre. She’s not concerned about her looks, but she’s very, very insecure about her lack of magical talent. Everyone in her family and her world has magic, except her. And her parents really are disappointed with her. While she was an excellent family ninja-assassin, she quit several years ago after an especially bloody public incident and has moved to SF to find herself. But of course her reputation has followed her and her only friends are her human business partners, her amulet supplier and her potion-maker. But over the course of the book she decides to stop being a recluse and meets everyone she’s been avoiding. It’s charming, but also surprisingly easy.
Her new romance is also good for this genre. He’s super-rich, handsome, expert at her obscure form of judo (but she’s better), and is sort of a jerk who won’t stop crudely hitting on her. But … he’s a normie, not part of the magic world. That’s a problem since he won’t stop trying to research his ancestral magic sword. He’s out of the picture about half-way through, put into the hospital after seeing a mgical secret magic battle. After the climax he’s released but has partial amnesia. On the last page they’re seeing each other “as friends”. Her studly ex-BF is also back in town now dating a powerful local woman who Emiko likes. That’s an acceptable amount of low-key ill-fated romance.
We don’t get any casual sexism. It actually goes the other way where anyone tough who matters is a woman: Emiko’s mom is the world’s most epic magical assassin (her dad stays home running the business), the leader of the friendly clan is an ultra-competent warrior woman (her brother is an inexperienced bumbler), and the bad guy is a man can’t even fight — he uses Mind Control. And of course, Emiko’s reputation as a heartless killer precedes her. No one calls her little missy. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but if you’re going to write an underdog female character, for adults who are very familiar with “can I talk to your husband or father?” nonsense, why would you give that up to make the world more boring and unrealistic?
She’s not a detective. She owns a small business locating and appraising artifacts with two human partners. That’s like detecting, maybe? But we don’t see her doing it, and she’s rich anyway, and the main plot is her being chosen to save the city. Basically, the hero’s small band of friends isn’t in this book.
On to the plot. Naturally it’s driven by her two-day-deadline. It has some twists and turns, but a big amount is her just knowing where the bad guys will be, going there, kicking ass, then they barely get away. How she deals with the demon-ghosts sums up the weaknesses: only Shaolin-blessed swords can hurt demon-ghosts, but she figures a Shaolin monk might have some other advice if he’ll even meet with her. It turns out the monk has seen how much good she’s done while in SF, and likes her, and loans her a blessed sword. It’s touching as we realize she’s her worst critic. But she solved her problem by getting a bigger sword. That’s a Dungeons&Dragons plot.
It’s common in this genre for regular folks to have heard that our heroine can help with magical problems, as if she’s some sort of protector. This book cranks that to eleven, creating a formal magical position “Protector of the City”, awarded by the semi-sentient city itself. That could be interesting, but here it comes with epic magical powers, fame, respect, and a parade. Emiko is now into comic-book levels of epicness. And as a nit-pick, the powers include earthquakes and roots bursting from the ground. Those are nature powers. Shouldn’t city powers use concrete and buildings and so on?
This book isn’t bad. I might even read the next one to see how things turn out, because there are some fun loose ends. The woman who runs the best restaurant in town still hates her and won’t sell her pork rolls. Emiko is going to stay friends with a young girl from the bad-guy clan — another ninja-assassin in training. Her younger brother has his traumatic Royal Rumble school graduation ceremony coming up. Her two business partners are starting to get curious about her past. Will she explain magic to her new possible boyfriend? All things which I’m sure will barely be touched as she fights a giant squid or something in book two.