Book Review: Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 2 of The Arcadia Project
Publisher: Saga Press (March 21, 2017)
Length: 416 pages
Last year Mishell Baker burst onto the scene and shook up the urban fantasy world with her debut Borderline, dazzling me with her fresh take on the genre. She also introduced us to Millie Roper, one of the most genuine and notable protagonists that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. It is therefore with great excitement that I can say the sequel Phantom Pains is even better, stronger, and more inventive than its predecessor. The Arcadia Project, welcome to my favorite series shelf!
If you haven’t read the first book yet, 1) you’re missing out, and 2) you may want to catch up first before tackling this one. Phantom Pains begins approximately four months after we last saw Millie, who has left the Arcadia Project after the devastating loss of her partner Teo. The Hollywood soundstage upon which the incident happened has since been designated a magical crime scene, restricted to all but those who are savvy to Arcadia, the “other” realm where Fey and other supernatural creatures reside.
However, just as Millie and her former boss Caryl are carrying out their final inspection of the soundstage before clearing it to open again, something strange happens. A vision of a tormented Teo suddenly appears to Millie, beseeching her to “let him in”. Traumatized, Millie is only marginally comforted when Caryl tells her that it could not have been the spirit of Teo, since ghosts don’t exist. But if that’s true, then what did she see?
While reluctant to rejoin the Arcadia Project as a full agent, Millie does agree to help them get down to the bottom of this, if nothing else to get the soundstage up and running again so she can get a particularly nettlesome studio client off her back. For the first time in months, Millie returns to her old home of Residence Four, where she is scheduled to meet with two bigwigs from the Project’s National Headquarters. Soon after her meeting though, one of them is found brutally murdered with dark magic—the kind that only Caryl, a warlock, is capable of. Still, despite the overwhelming evidence, Millie is certain that Caryl didn’t do it. Painfully aware that she is her friend’s last and only hope, Millie must now gather whatever allies and resources she has left to try and clear Caryl’s name before it is too late.
Let’s start with how simply awesome Millie is as a protagonist. Phantom Pains continues to develop and grow her as a complex and fully-realized character, while also progressing her journey as a survivor. I could tell you that Millie has borderline personality disorder, or that a about a year ago she had a failed suicide attempt that caused her to lose her legs a promising film career. But the truth is though, those mere descriptions simply don’t do her justice. Millie is so much more, and once you pick up these books and experience her voice for yourself, you’ll know what I mean. It really speaks volumes about the author’s skills as a writer that she is able to convey the character’s tragic past and disabilities in an unflinchingly honest yet respectful manner, making her feel realistic and convincing without resorting to stereotypes. Outstandingly, Baker challenges our established views on disability in fiction simply by writing a fun and enjoyable story, and her protagonist is portrayed as she is: vulnerable but strong, flawed but indomitable, different but no less important.
Bottom line, I just love Millie, despite her not always being likeable. It’s true that she’s a straight-talker, and her BPD sometimes affects her emotionally, making her say or do impulsive things. Interestingly though, I find that she has mellowed out somewhat in Phantom Pains, her voice reflecting the ongoing treatment she reports to have been receiving in the four months since the events of Borderline. And on that note, I was also happy to find out that Millie and Caryl remained friends, even in the aftermath of all that happened. The two of them have a great dynamic, not to mention Caryl was one of my favorites from the first book and it thrilled me to see her play a bigger role in this sequel. If you aren’t familiar with Caryl’s circumstances I’m not going to spoil anything for you, though I will say that Phantom Pains revealed much more of her history and what I learned broke my heart into a million pieces.
And that brings us to the story, which was absolutely fantastic. While the plot may have been slower to take off and there were more holes in it than I would have liked, I am completely willing to forgive everything in light of how this book ended. It’s not going to be the epic conclusion you would expect in terms of style and tone, but for me the ending was still surprising and emotionally impactful, the kind that makes you look back and realize the entire story had been setting up for this moment. There is a very real kind of beauty in the way everything came together in the end, and of course Mishell Baker nailed it perfectly.
In sum, Borderline was great, and to my delight, Phantom Pains was even better. Bar none, The Arcadia Project is the most refreshing series to come out of the urban fantasy genre in years. Anyone who is a UF fan needs to do themselves a favor and check out these books right now!
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Borderline (Book 1)