Harmony Black starts with an old premise, there is a normal and magical world, and barely builds on it. If you are looking for a fun weekend read, this book will fit the bill. But don't expect to come away with a novel view on the world or a new set of wondrous ideas to mull over.
I haven't read any of Craig Schaefer's previous books and knew little about Harmony Black and the Daniel Faust series's world going in. Basically, this was one of the Amazon Prime Kindle First books and was getting good initial reviews, so I gave it a go. In that sense, this book was fun: there was little expectation going in to weigh down on the reading experience. However, at the end of the day, this book came across as nothing more than a light weekend read that was fun while it lasted but will be soon forgotten. Plot spoilers ahead.
To get this out of the way, the premise of the book is simple: there is a normal world that most humans know about and there is a magical world that both coexists with ours and contains realms (universes?) separate from ours that people with the right skill set (or at the right place and time) can move between. Seems fairly standard and on the whole it is, with very few surprises in the way of new ideas or a twist on an old premise. Having just read Vernor Vinge's at once brilliant and frustrating A Fire Upon the Deep, which is filled with many excellent and thought-provoking ideas wrapped inside a rather basic story, this felt like a return to the mundane. And much of that stems from a cast of characters that at first sounds fresh, but in the end come across as rather stale.
Harmony Black is a rather dry book character masquerading as one with depth. It seems like the Hurting Hero idea was copy and pasted, along with a tragic origin story tying her to the current case. Recently watched Netflix's Jessica Jones, whose character also has a tragic past. However, there it is integral to the plot in a way that doesn't seem forced and superficial as it does here. The Big Baddie (Kilgrave) in that show is also aware of how to manipulate Jessica using these past events, rather than being easily defeated by it (ignoring the final episode…). In contrast, the Big Baddie in Harmony Black is revealed and his motives explored more through leaps of logic by the characters (e.g. sudden 'insights') rather than revealing his motives and logic in a more subtle manner (although this is tried to a degree) or through his changed actions in response to new events. The main antagonist could have, perhaps, been handled better, both in the final (super disappointing) confrontation and the reveal of who they are.
The other characters from Harmony's other team members/organization helpers—such as Linder (her might-have-other-motives 'boss'), Jessie (normal seeming agent…with a secret), April (wise agent with a disability), and Kevin (a black-turn-white hat hacker who plays video games as a way to keep in touch with informants and other hackers)—to the small town characters—such as Cody (police officer) and Barry (another, older police officer)—never come across as fully realized characters. They each seem to fit a slot in the story, e.g. Cody being the love interest to the normally uptight Harmony, rather than standing on their own as independent persons with their own goals and motivations. And this lack of characterization bleeds over to the 'antagonists'.
For some reason Nyx, one of the Chainmen (what amounts to Hell's bounty hunters, who are in town looking for the Big Baddie's henchman) who acts as an antagonists throughout the book, reminded me of Nemes, a character in Endymion (part of the phenomenal Hyperion Cantos) whose also out to capture one of the main characters/MacGuffins. The reminder was less about how great the Nyx is as a character than how well realized Nemes was in comparison, who just came across as a bounty hunter who likes to break the rules. And considering the supposed ages of the Chainmen and other Hellspawns, it seems odd that she is still in business given her rash behavior (even the other Chainman notes this) on display during the event of the book. And this points to one of the problems of this book: there doesn't seem to be a strict consistency to the powers on display and an astonishing lack of intelligence on the part of some of the (supposedly super old) characters.
Take Nyx and Fontaine. These two Chainmen should have much more wisdom than the human characters yet seem surprisingly limited in their ability to out think said human characters. If Fontaine can move his soul between bodies, including animals(!), why does he not use this more to his strategic and tactical advantage? If Nyx has been on many hunts before and has supposedly encountered witches, why is she even remotely surprised, bemused, or tricked by Harmony's salt shield or other events in the book? After encountering overpowered antagonist like Nemes in Endymion who use their powers to their fullest and only seem caught off-guard when they actually should be (e.g. getting blasted from space by a ship she shouldn't have had any knowledge would be able to use such a weapon), Nyx and Fontaine seem a bit amateur hour by comparison.
The books dialogue and flow are overall good, but the book suffers from a case of people saying things in a way that comes across as the author trying to make a moral point or be funny in a run-of-the-mill TV show manner, e.g.
“Shotguns,” I [Harmony] said. “Bring all your shotguns.”
Lastly, the central conflict of this book is resolved in a way that leaves much to be desired. We are hinted that the final location of the book's Big Baddie might be an otherworldly place where the laws of physics may not apply and the Big Baddie will essentially be a god. I got excited, as I expected the book would take advantage of all the witchcraft, Hell lore, and other magical elements to deliver a rich, mind-bending world for Harmony and crew to outwit and overcome. Instead, we are treated to a predictable environment (with a trick straight out of A Song of Fire and Ice's House of the Undying) and a Big Baddie—whose survived for ages keeping demons from Hell itself at bay—being outwitted and manipulated inside his own realm by the lamest of 'tricks'. It is unsatisfying and disappointing.
The end of the book has an afterward by Craig mentioning that this is a new book in a series. Thus, some of the less than inspiring bits of this book might look better in light of reading further books in the series; however, this does not excuse each individual volume in the series from standing on its own merits. This book was an enjoyable read, but it will come and go from (my) memory without much fuss, which is a shame as the premise holds a lot of promise. I'll keep an eye on the series as hopefully it'll improve with further entries.