Chasing Graves is the story of a wisecracking lock-pick who gets himself murdered in an alley– but that’s just the beginning of the story. This unique and well-told tale is set in a vivid world, populated with interesting characters. It sets up a larger story, one that amps up the stakes higher than a thief’s fate, or a royal’s political schemes. It’s an adventurous captivity tale about life-and-death…but mostly death.
Caltro Basalt, our entertaining protagonist starts things off with a scatological prank. It sets the tone not only for Caltro’s sense of humor, but the author’s too. I really enjoyed the wisecracking and occasional silliness that peppers this story, it keeps what would otherwise be a pretty dreary story afloat. Ben Galley deftly uses humor to counterbalance a story about a man who is murdered and enslaved(in that order). Caltro’s snark, and the occasional innuendo embedded in the chapter quotes are not only funny, they keep the otherwise bleak AF premise accessible to readers who aren’t interested in grim melodrama.
The story alternates from Caltro’s 1st person POV to 3rd person POV of Sisine, a scheming princess, Nilith, a hard ass with sort of a bounty hunter vibe who is dragging the corpse of her quarry across the desert, and finally Boss Temsa, a ruthless gangster and soul snatcher. I’ve heard a few reviewers quibble about the POV and head hopping, but it was never disorienting or off-putting to me, and every storyline was interesting in its own way.
I loved Caltro. This thief turned ghost-slave, fighting for his freedom, is entertaining from page one. His sense of humor in the face of death, his defiance, his sneakiness, his pudgy laziness all made for a memorable and likable protagonist. Sisine is the princess of Araxes, and her political maneuverings comprise their share of novel. Her character wasn’t quite as vivid, but these courtly chapters were still full of intrigue and suspense. None of the book dragged, even if I was looking forward to getting back to Caltro’s slices the storyline. Finally, there is Nilith, dragging her husband’s ghost across the desert to get him to the waters of the Nyx, so that she can bind his spirit and enslave him. This was the high action section of the story. I liked both of the characters, and Galley did a good job of making each action scene feel unique. However, I do feel like there was some lacking interaction between these two. Galley plays it close to the chest until the end –which has some pros and cons. As I was reading through most of the book, I felt like these two should have some more meaningful conversations that would reveal more about their backstories and relationship. This marital banter is intentionally omitted or limited to superficial bickering in exchange for a payoff down the road.
World building in Chasing Graves is thorough and interesting. Araxes and the surrounding desert felt like very real places to me. The city is a distinct culture, with clear Egyptian influences, that has been warped by the presence, the abundance even, of enslaved spirits. There are times when everyday life teeters towards an unrealistic brutality, but again, the elements of humor soften a few minor logical stretches into loveable absurdities.
I did have one quibble with the world building. The ruler of Araxes has sequestered himself away from all contact in order to shield himself from the possibility of assassination. It doesn’t seem practical or believable that a ruler could isolate themselves this thoroughly. Who cooks his food? Couldn’t they just poison him? Does he have no servants? Does he wash his own chamber pot? It makes a little more sense as the story unfolds, though it’s still problematic in my opinion, but for most of the book it had a tendency to pull me out of the story.
Anyway, back to the good stuff. The lore surrounding the binding of shades is also interesting and layered. The rituals and components surrounding the indenturement of the spirit are systematic and wonder inspiring. Galley does an excellent job of using chapter quotes to reinforce the strictures of the practice, developing the “Code of Indenturement”, and adding tantalizing tidbits of more history throughout. The author even sets the stage for growth in our understanding of the world’s magic with glimpses of the afterlife, and a smattering of heretical magics like “strangebinding.”
All in all, Chasing Graves is a super fun read, and I flew through it. I would heartily recommend it. I’ll be moving on to the sequels in short order. And no doubt exploring the rest of Galley’s backlist as time permits. The story is amusing, unique, and fast-paced, full of mysteries and memorable characters. You can’t ask for much more than that.