Reed Alexander's Literary Review of 'Trief Magic' (2020) by John Baltisberger
Jewish Hellblazer, but better.
The first thing that caught me, is the primary character Ze'ev (Wolf), reminds me very much of John Constantine. He's a bit of a jaded todger and its difficult to tell if he's doing this because its a job, or if he in some respect believes in what he's doing. There are tons of fairly stark comparisons between the two, so I won't belabor the point. Needless to say, everything from the attitude to the talk, to the 'film noir' gum-shoe stylization, matches pretty closely.
What I think is more important, is how Ze'ev and Constantine differ. Much as I love John Constantine, he always came off as a cocky edge-lord, which translated very poorly for someone who was supposed to walk the line of good and evil. Ze'ev, just seems better developed with depth and a more tangible character traits. He has clear deep and purposeful thought that walks the balance far better than John ever did. John was constantly pushing the boundaries like a toddler acting out against a dad trying to ignore him, NEVER taking responsibility for the damage he causes, but always whining about the aftermath. Ze'ev carries the burden better, trying to find a way to break the rules to get the job done, knowing there are consequences, but never bitching about them as he headlong swandives into oblivion.
Ze'ev, chose to jump, he had a good reason, was aware of the consequences, and now looking at the view from halfway down, doesn't have time for regrets. There was a time when Constantine appealed to my jaded teenage self, but now that I'm a grown damn man, I need a grown damn anit-hero. If I had to follow a bad boy into the dark, I'd choose Ze'ev.
It's one of the reasons I agreed to use him in Artifice of Flesh, a UPD novella. While this was published long after, I'd already read it multiple times in all stages of the work as a beta reader. I was a fan a long ago, well before it was published.
Something I think is significant, is how this novel pays respects to its Jewish roots. Mr. Baltisberger is a Jewish horror author, and expert on the occult, after all. Importantly throughout, there are a lot of teaching moments on the Jewish religion and even it's occult roots. Using its narrative brilliantly, without being too 'telly' Ze'ev, walks you through and shows you many religious practices without being dismissive of other culture or their practices. The author explains things as a matter of perspective. It's all real. Your faith is real, and what you make of your faith is what it is. Encounters with other cultures and other faiths are just another part of a bigger mystery. Nothing doesn't fit and even if we can't understand how everything has its place.
Let's talk about the important parts, though. Two things struck me about the writing. One, the dialog is well developed and natural. As I previously mentioned, a lot of it is 'gum-shoe noir' internal dialog. It reads well within the actual movement of the scenes and setting as the plot unfolds. The plot itself is gripping. As I'm often to say, it's pretty hard for me to sit down and read a whole book. It's hard for me to even want to if it's over 100 pages. This one kept me engaged, and (most importantly) never bucked me from my reader's trance. One scene naturally flowed to the next, which is vastly important for me as a reader, and each scene was engaging. While a lot of this is broken up by small bouts of exposition, again, it's very engaging and seamlessly guides you from one scene to the next.
The setting is immensely deep and developed, the plot and characters are immersive, and the writing better than anything I've read in a while. I'm not going to spoil this book, because I want you to read it. What I'll say is that this novel deals deeply with making hard choices and accepting the consequences. This makes Ze'ev's constant sacrifice nobler than most of the whiny broody anti-heroes that came out of the 90's.
I consider it a 'must read.'