LitStack Review: Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker

by Sharon Browning

Phantom Pains
The Arcadia Project, Book 2
Mishell Baker
Saga Press
Release Date: March 21, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-8017-8

Millie Roper, the central character in Mishell Baker’s Arcadia Project urban fantasy series, is a very intriguing hero, not because of her virtues, but because she perseveres despite her challenges. In the initial book in the series, Borderline, we are introduced to this young woman with a borderline personality disorder and two prosthetic legs (due to a botched suicide attempt). Millie outwardly faces  struggles with cynicism and snarkiness while inwardly showing the reader a tenacious front against vulnerability, doing so without being cloying, without lecturing, and without falling into a media-induced disability stereotype.

We get handed a heckuva lot more, as well, such as the existence of the Arcadia Project, a secret diplomatic organization that oversees relations and polices traffic between our world and the world of the fey, which exists in a kind of parallel reality, complete with sidhe – Seelie and Unseelie factions – and magic galore, some benign and some far more nefarious. Yup, I said faeries and magic. It’s a very rich and complex relationship.

So rich and complex that this is one of those book series where I don’t feel you can pick up the second book without reading the first one. Not only will reading Borderline allow you to become familiar with Millie and her associative characters, but it will keep you from getting lost in the references that set up much of the action in Phantom Pains. And you’ll want to know what’s going on, because Phantom Pains is an entertaining, and I daresay unique, take on “our” relationship to the land and culture of faeries, as well as their kith and their kin.

Author Mishell Baker paints this relationship as dreadfully messy – which is a very good thing. Our lives are messy, with our social norms, our inner turmoils and outer banalities; faerie life is even more so, with its centuries old resentments, one-upmanships, class stratifications, and all sorts of petty and bombastic expectations.

Too often fantasy fare that incorporates both worlds tries to posit the faerie realm as full of gossamer and dewdrops and woodland frivolity, or else as primordial and aloof and terrifying. Ms. Baker manages to make both worlds – ours and the fantasy kingdom – feel astonishingly believable, by giving us characters that are less than perfect and yet not tragic tropes, characters that we can understand, even if we strain to realize what put them on the paths they travel, and stretch to realize how they fit together, despite the odds. It’s a hard thing to articulate, but a wonderful thing to behold.

Set against the backdrop of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, we also get an interesting play of what is real against what is presented as real, and how even the best of intentions won’t always win the day. One of the most intriguing examples of this is Millie herself, who, due to the steel used to reconstruct her broken body after her suicide attempt, is, on one hand, impervious to spellwork, but also cannot be in physical contact with those from the faerie world without exposing them and causing them pain – something that definitely puts a damper on her relationship with Claybriar, the LAPD detective/faun who is her “Echo” (a preordained pairing between a human and a fey creature that brings out the best in both).

In Phantom Pains, we learn that the death of the scheming Unseelie countess Vivian at the end of Borderline does not mean that her supposedly diabolical plan to destroy the magical portals between the worlds has been thwarted, merely delayed. And when an officer from the Project’s national headquarters is gruesomely murdered in a way that points a finger at Caryl Vallo, Millie’s former boss and friend, Arcadia leadership can only see their way to evoking a draconian justice rather than focusing on why the crime was set up to occur in the first place, giving the agents of the countess’s plot time to regroup. Add to this Millie’s uncovering of information regarding the very basis of spellwork itself that could upset the entire balance of power on the other side of the rift, and you have an intriguing story with lots of moving parts that keeps the action hopping, both in movement and emotional entanglement.

And that doesn’t even take into account monsters of legend traipsing through Los Angeles in the guise of the mundane. Like a dog. A very large dog.

Surprising, honest, energetic, candid, entertaining. And faeries. And doomsday. What’s not to love?

~ Sharon Browning

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