Unleash (Spellhounds Book One) by Lauren Harris

I will admit that I have become burned out on Urban Fantasy. I often find it predictable, recycling the same old magic systems, problems, etc.

While Unleash does have some familiar elements, it still managed to fee fresh and exciting.

Here’s a little about the book from the author’s blurb before we go on.

Helena Martin doesn’t know who she hates more, the sorcerers who fired the magic laced bullet or the gang-lord master who used her mother as a shield. It’s not the price she expected for escaping magical slavery, nor is the unstable power now pulsing in her veins.

Caught between her former master’s hunters and the Guild of Sorcerers determined to kill them, she finds a safe haven at a dog rescue willing to take in a different kid of stray. But Helena’s newly-unleashed power is a beacon for her enemies. And they’re threatening the first place she’s ever thought of as home.

 I give this book 4 out of 5 stars, and here’s why

So yes, there are some elements here I’ve seen before. The difference? In the execution. The book starts off at break neck pace, doesn’t slow for several chapters. When it finally did I felt like I’d been running a marathon.  There are calm moments that are interrupted by fights, attacks and the unveiling of truth. The pacing and structure was spot on and only fell to explaining things once. Which in a book with a unique magic system, is pretty impressive.

And yes, you read that right, I said unique magic system.  I have become so bored with magic systems that were either too complex because the author was in love with their world building.  Or so simple that there were giant logical holes in the system that it was part of the reason I stopped reading the genre. This magic system, however, is based on Mandalas working with different metals; iron, gold, etc. And, since blood has iron, there is also a type of magic where you can use Mandalas and blood. The scene where the history of this is explained could’ve verged on the info dumping side if the author hadn’t built up to that moment the way she did. I didn’t care that I was getting a little history lesson because I was nervous about what the Guild was going to do the hero I had become very invested in. As well as just knowing that the bounty hunters were probably about to attack.

And that leads me to our hero: Helena Martin

I’ll admit that I also have been tired of the beautiful, thin and all powerful hero in Urban Fantasy. While Helena is pretty, thin, white and does have unique power, she is clueless about how to use it and so the author uses that as an opportunity to teach us a little about the magical system and about Helena too. The kind of childhood that Helena has had means she doesn’t trust anyone easily. She’s secretive, suspicious and scared. Instead of neatly resolving all of this so that Helena can boink the cute Korean guy quicker, or dumping it because it would be easier to write (like I’ve seen other authors do), the author full on embraces it. We see Helena’s painful PTSD, we see her inability to grieve for those she’s lost, the fear of trusting, the fear of bringing pain and death to anyone she might begin to care for. The author uses the past she’s given Helena to take us on that journey with her. It’s awesome, and even a little frustrating because I just wanted her to kiss the cute Korean guy already! By the time we reach the end of the book, though, I felt that Helena’s journey was all the more satisfying because of how true to the character the author stayed.

Even though Helena as a  white female is nothing new, the author surrounds her with a diverse cast of characters. The already mentioned Korean guy, a curvaceous lesbian, a woman with mental health struggles, an East Indian a sorceress, and a mixed race woman who runs a dog rescue.  I loved seeing the real world represented so well, without stereo types. In fact, there is much poking fun of said stereo types.

I also loved the ever present menace of the villain, who is “on screen” for very little time. The Guild was far more present, as well as the creepy bounty hunters. We see him at the beginning and the end, but I felt his presence throughout the entire book. I’ve seen other authors try to pull off something like this.  But they only succeeded in making it all feel clunky and over done. Not so here. I knew that this guy was haunting her every step, even when she thought he was dead.

One of the only things that kept me from giving it five stars was the formatting. There were some serious issues at certain points. These included key pieces of dialogue missing or combined with another characters, which made it difficult to figure out what was happening. There was also extra words in sentences that stopped my flow of reading. Sometimes this happened in the middle of a really tense moment. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of a handful of such things, but this was a rampant problem throughout the book and became frustrating by the end.

Overall, I would highly recommend this to anyone who is or has been a fan of Urban Fantasy.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!