Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.
The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.
This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.
What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.
This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.
However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.