Review: Cunning Devil

Cunning Devil audiobook cover. A dark-haired man in a black leather coat strides out of a gritty, urban landscape. Cunning Devil by Chris Underwood.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 9 hrs 33 mins.
Publisher: Chris Underwood.

Cunning Devil, Lost Falls, Book 1 by Chris Underwood is a new urban fantasy series, set in the quiet town of Lost Falls, where secrets - and far worse things - lurk beneath the sleepy suburban facade.

Audible Summary: "Breaking curses. Battling witchcraft. Revenge. All in a day's work for Ozzy Turner, folk wizard.

Is a witch throwing curses your way? Something scary scratching at your window in the night? Then, I've got just the charm for you. Mostly, though, I find things. Lost treasures, missing loved ones...if you need something found, I'm your guy.

So, when a grieving father hired me to track down a family heirloom stolen by a sticky-fingered hobgoblin, I was happy to help. No one was supposed to wind up dead. Especially not me. But they made a mistake when they put a bullet in my stomach and left me for the worms. They didn't bury me deep enough....

If you like Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, Shayne Silvers, M.D. Massey, or Orlando A. Sanchez, then you'll love taking a trip to the sleepy town of Lost Falls, where not everything is as it seems.

©2017 Chris Underwood (P)2019 Chris Underwood."

One of the things I most enjoyed about this series was that rather than being a mage or magician, the protagonist, Osric 'Ozzy' Turner, was a cunning man. An early sort of spellcaster, cunning folk are present throughout folklore but are often underrepresented in contemporary fantasy. With its roots in the learned potions, spells, and knowledge of wise men and women and healers, Ozzy's abilities are in large part thanks to his mentor, Early. Early reminds me very much of Abraham Whistler from the Blade movies, crossed with Bobby Singer from Supernatural, as he acts not only as Ozzy's teacher but his moral guide and surrogate parent, keeping him on the straight and narrow whilst teaching him the lessons he will need to make his way in the world alone. So distinctly did I feel this similarity that I pictured Early as Kris Kristofferson from the beginning, and can no longer recall how Underwood actually described him.

It can be tricky to settle into a new series, but I liked Underwood's world-building as he led us around Lost Falls, and introduced us to the creatures with which it was populated. Much of the back-story is fuelled by Ozzy's own run-in with the magical world, and his drive to combat the supernatural evils of the world while battling his personal demons; some of which join him in the kitchen when they want something.

Considering this book compares itself to The Dresden Files in the blurb, I was expecting more of the humour that is common to most of the slick urban fantasy books featuring a similar protagonist, be they Harry Dresden, or Professor Croft. There's a quieter and less brash feel to Ozzy than his peers in the genre, and this book has a much better attitude to its female characters than the Dresden Files has ever achieved. In Cunning Devil, the women are mostly treated (gasp!) just like any other character. The fact that they are female is almost incidental, except that Ozzy has a little romantic interest in Lilian, but despite angling for Lilian to take him out to dinner, I don't think Ozzy marvelled at her breasts once! Not even when they were running for their lives, which is usually the moment at which any male protagonist in fantasy comments upon his attractive companion's 'heaving bosom'. This is refreshing in urban fantasy, which is not known for its sensitivity to (or awareness of) issues of sex, race, and ability. Ozzy's sister, Alice, proved to be further evidence of this book's improved attitudes, quietly subverting the listener's assumptions without being heavy-handed.

Quite a few convenient plot points seem to slip past Ozzy unnoticed, most of which tend to centre upon him sensing that something isn't right and either ignoring his instincts or just not being focused enough to pursue them. While this does lead to a few occasions when I wanted to roll my eyes at him and mutter "for goodness' sake, of course that's important!", I could imagine Early doing much the same thing, and attributed a lot of it to his relative immaturity in the field. What do you call a wise man who still has a lot to learn? Well, in this case, Osric Turner.

Fortunately, though Ozzy was oblivious to most of them, the mystery had enough twists and turns to remain well paced despite the obviously side-stepped plot points, and the ultimate reveal provided a satisfying conclusion. It picked up the pace significantly in the latter half, and the last two hours were my favourite of the whole book. I wasn't keen on the inception-style knowing wink to a book within a book within a book, but who am I to deny Ozzy his inner Jessica Fletcher?

Aside from a few rather clunky sentences, such as "The end of the staircase came so suddenly I didn't even notice it. Suddenly, we were on flat ground again", which did little to improve my opinion of Ozzy's observational skills, the book is well written and kept me wanting to know more about the characters. I really liked its ethical underpinning and this felt to be a very natural part of the 'cunning man' philosophy, which is quite unlike that of the traditional wizard of popular culture. This helped me enjoy Ozzy's company in a way that is often more challenging with his more bombastic contemporaries.

The narrator, Gary Bennett, was new to me but did well with this book. I felt he was a little too neutral at times, especially at the start. His style was very laid-back, and I am more accustomed to urban fantasy being a bit livelier. Though this improved as I got to know Ozzy, it would have been easier to lose myself in his story if he had been a little more animated. Bennett created good voices for the characters, but there wasn't a lot of differentiation between Ozzy and Early at times, especially at the start when they were both still unfamiliar. A couple of times I got distracted while I was listening and had to rewind the audiobook to figure out which of them was meant to be speaking. This wasn't too problematic, and overall I enjoyed his reading.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed similar books in the genre, such as Shadow Magic by Nazri Noor, or Demon Moon by Brad Magnarella.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in the hope of an honest, unbiased review.

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