FINDING A SERIES OR AN AUTHOR:

USING THE PAGE TABS (ABOVE) TO FIND A SERIES OR AUTHOR:

Only the most recent posts pop up on the HOME page. For searchable lists of titles/series reviewed on this Blog, click on one of the Page Tabs above. On each Page, click on the series name to go directly to my review.

AUTHOR SEARCH lists all authors reviewed on this Blog. CREATURE SEARCH groups all of the titles/series by their creature types. The RATINGS page explains the violence, sensuality, and humor (V-S-H) ratings codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their Ratings. The PLOT TYPES page explains the SMR-UF-CH-HIS codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their plot types. On this Blog, when you see a title, an author's name, or a word or phrase in pink type, this is a link. Just click on the pink to go to more information about that topic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Chloe Neill: CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES SERIES


Author:  Chloe Neill

Series:  CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4, Sensuality2-4, Humor3
Publisher and Titles:  NAL Trade
    1      Some Girls Bite (4/2009)
    2      Friday Night Bites (10/2009)
    3      Twice Bitten (7/2010)
    4      Hard Bitten (5/2011)
    5      Drink Deep (11/2011)
    6      Biting Cold (8/2012)
    7      House Rules (2/2013)
    8      Biting Bad (8/2013)
    8.2   "High Stakes" (Luc and Lindsey short story in Kicking It, 12/2013)
    8.5    "Howling for You" (novella, 1/2014)
    9      Wild Things (2/2014)
  10      Blood Games (8/2014) 
  10.5   “Lucky Break” (novella, 2/17/2015)
  11      Dark Debt (3/2/2015) 
  12      Midnight Marked (1/2017)
  12.5   "Phantom Kiss" (e-novella, 1/17/2016)
  13       Blade Bound (4/2017) (FINAL NOVEL)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 12/23/2016 to include a review of "Phantom Kiss," novella 12.5 in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and summaries and/or reviews of the first twelve novels and three stories/novellas. 

                    NOVELLA 12.5: "Phantom Kiss"                    
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Vampires generally aren't afraid of things that go bump in the night, but Merit and Ethan are extra jumpy after a recent attack by a dark sorcerer. So when they learn that someone is messing with graves in Chicago's cemeteries, stealing skulls and snatching souls, they fear their powerful foe might be back for even more magical vengeance.


     But after a specter begins haunting Cadogan House-and targeting vampires- they realize they're being taunted by an altogether different sort of monster. A ghoulish villain straight out of the Windy City's urban legends is on the prowl- and he won't stop until he's killed again.

MY REVIEW: 
     One clue that the series is coming to an end is the fact that the opening scene of this novella finds Ethan and Merit attending their wedding shower (held at the ostentatious mansion of Merit's parents). Their wedding is just two months away, and I think we have all known for awhile that the long-awaited ceremony would mean the end of the series.

     This novella begins four months after the events of Midnight Marked. Merit's brother doesn't attend the shower because he is still angry with Merit about her involvement in the death of Adrien Reed, the wealthy and powerful real estate tycoon who—along with his sorceress wife, Sorcha—was one of the villains in Midnight Marked. Sorcha is still on the loose, having broken out of the Chicago PD's custody, and everyone is terrified that she will return to wreak more havoc. Merit's father also skips the partyusing a business trip as an excuse. The humor and drama of the party scene involve Merit and Ethan's dealings with Merit's over-the-top party-planning mother and her vampire-hating Great-Aunt Sarah. The mind-boggling "cake" that is the centerpiece of the table is "less pastry than edible sculpturea tall and wriggling three-dimensional heart made of a dozen layers of beet-stained gelatin."

     After an uncomfortable evening at the shower, the couple receives a phone call from their friend Annabelle Shaw, the necromancer who helped them out during the Adrien/Sorcha catastrophe. Annabelle has had her baby (a daughter named Maddy) and has returned to patrolling Chicago's cemeteries in search of spirits who need her help. Tonight, she has stumbled across a desecrated grave. What's worse, Annabelle is certain that the grave robber also summoned a ghost. When Ethan and Merit arrive at the cemetery, they find a very old skeleton that is missing its skull. They also find a trio of paranormal investigators (aka ghost-busters) who claim to have seen the grave robber and are able to provide some vague details about his physical appearance and his means of escape.

     The suspense and danger begin to build when the ghost of the disinterred man follows Ethan and Merit back to Cadogan House and attacks one of Ethan's vampires. The intrepid couple must figure out the identity of the skeleton and the ghost, the identity of the grave robber, and the reason for his actions. They also have to find a way to get rid of the violent ghost once and for all. Meanwhile, the ghost returns and attacks more members of Cadogan House, including Merit.

     This is an entertaining "bridge" story to keep us happy until the final novel arrives in late April. It establishes Annabelle as a strong, courageous woman who can stand her ground against a powerful enemy, just like the rest of Merit's allies do day in and day out. The plot takes a nice twist towards the end when the identity of the ghost summoner is revealed, and (naturally) there is a scary showdown scene to climax the plot and provide resolution. 

     This e-novella includes a lengthy excerpt from Blade Bound, the final novel, so you can get a head start on that wedding-centered story. As of today (12/23/2016) "Phantom Kiss" (approximately 86 pages) is available for pre-order at a price of $1.99 from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Google Books (and probably other on-line sources as well). 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Phantom Kiss" is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                           WORLD-BUILDING                           
     Caroline Evelyn Merit (who calls herself Merit) is a twenty-seven-year-old University of Chicago graduate student when a rogue vampire mortally wounds her and Ethan Sullivan, master vampire of the Cadogan House, rescues her from death (i.e., changes her over). In this world, vampires have just made themselves known to the public, and they live in “Houses,” each led by a master. A handful of rogue vampires live independently, with no allegiance to the Houses. The Houses submit to the rules of a governing council in England, the Greenwich Presidium (GP).

     Merit, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago family, is initially devastated by her changeover. When her powers develop to a much greater degree than is normal for an initiate, she is appointed to the position of Sentinel, which includes guarding Cadogan House and its master.

     Merit has an ongoing love-hate relationship with Ethan, whose arrogant, alpha attitude drives her crazy. Other characters include Merit’s roommate, Mallory Carmichael, a newbie sorcerer; Mallory’s boyfriend, Catcher Bell, a powerful sorcerer; and Merit’s grandfather, who heads up the city’s ombudsman program, which serves as a buffer in the investigation of crimes between humans and supernaturals. Villains include a variety of traitorous vampires and werewolves. Faeries are also involved in some the plots.

     All of the books have strong plots and interesting characters. Merit is a typical urban fantasy heroine: brash, stubborn, smart, and outspoken. The dialogue gets slightly silly at times, and Merit's love of all things Chicago is a bit overdone, but other than that, she’s fun to watch. Ethan is a perfect tortured hero—the ancient vampire forced to adjust to a changing society and having trouble curbing his arrogance and pride. The supporting characters are just quirky enough to hold our interest.


    Click HERE to go to the official Cadogan House web site. Click HERE to go to a page of extras about the cast of CHICAGOLAND. Click HERE to read the Canon of the North American Vampire Houses (which currently includes only chapter 5, the one about the American Houses). 


                 NOVEL 1: Some Girls Bite                 
     Book 1 takes Merit from first bite through her first weeks of initiation into her new vampire life. Eventually, she stops feeling sorry for herself and begins to adjust. Although Merit’s relationship with Ethan has a love-hate cast to it, you know in your heart that the love part will eventually win out. She also begins a flirtation with Morgan (second in command at the rival Navarre House), so she’s keeping her romantic options open at this point. A sub-plot focuses on Mallory, who discovers that she is a witch. The villainess in this book is a high-ranking member of the GP who (for unknown reasons) hates Merit with a passion. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

                 NOVEL 2: Friday Night Bites                 
     This book begins a month after book 1, and the tortuous relationship between Merit and Ethan hasn’t improved much. Merit moves into Cadogan House and must contend with a group of vampires who don’t like her very much. The House vampires are confronted with a major problem in this book: raves, in which vamps (mostly rogues) meet in groups and feast on supposedly willing humans. Since mortals are already leery of vampires, the House masters don’t want any publicity about the raves. Ethan and Merit must go undercover to try to solve the problem, and that brings Merit back in contact with her estranged family. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

                 NOVEL 3: Twice Bitten                 
     As the second book opens, two months have passed since Merit was bitten and changed. In this adventure, Merit is assigned to guard the leader of North America's shape-shifters as the packs gather in Chicago to discuss the future of their often touchy relationship with vampires. What could go wrong? Merit and Ethan’s relationship moves from a tremendous high to an abysmal low, and by the end of the book, both are having difficulty dealing with each other. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

                 NOVEL 4: Hard Bitten                 
     In Hard Bitten, Cadogan House is recovering from the climactic battle that ended the previous book. As a result of that catastrophe, the werewolves were outed to the human world, and now the humans are scared to death of all supernaturals. The vampire Houses are being picketed, and the mayor wants to put Ethan in jail because he has an eyewitness who claims that angry vampires have killed three humans.

     As Merit investigates the situation, she becomes certain that her old enemy, Celina Desaulniers (the villainess from book 1), is somehow involved. In the midst of all this, the head of the GP, Darius West, drops in to threaten Ethan with a GP takeover of Cadogan House if Ethan doesn’t get things calmed down in Chicago. In this book, we learn the truth about Merit’s attack back in book 1. The plot is tight and action filled, and the ending is a shocker. I’m begging you…PLEASE, don’t read the ending first. You’ll hate yourself if you do. Click HERE to read the first chapter.


                 NOVEL 5: Drink Deep                 
     Drink Deep opens two months later as Merit and the rest of the Cadogan House vampires are still grieving for Ethan when strange happenings begin to frighten the entire city. First, the river and the lake turn black and become still. Then, the sky turns bright red and flashes with lethal lightning. The new mayor, of course, blames the vampires for causing these apocalyptic events. In the meantime, Cadogan House is still in receivership, and the GP has put Franklin Cabot, a power-hungry sycophant, in charge. Cabot intends to ruin the House and then blame it on the resident vampires. Malik is now the House Master, with Luc as second-in-command. The plot follows Merit and her new partner, Jonah, as they attempt to track down the perpetrator of the elemental attacks. Jonah heads up the guards at Grey House, and he'd like to replace Ethan in Merit's romantic life. 

     Another plot thread follows the problems between Mallory and Catcher as Mallory gets so involved in her final sorcery exams that she appears to be going through some kind of personality change—and not a good one. Merit, Jonah, and Catcher run down a list of suspects, from river nymphs to lake siren to fairiesand even Tate, the imprisoned, magical former mayor. But when they come up short, they must face the fact that the villain may be someone within their inner circle. The book ends with a huge and unlikely twist, about which I have mixed feelings. (Don't worry, I won't spoil the story by divulging any secrets here.) On the one hand, that twist is welcome because of the positive effect it has on the characters, especially Merit, but on the other hand, it feels as if the author took a bold step in the series plot arc and then stepped back and reneged. Otherwise, this is another terrific chapter in a strong series. Merit is a great UF heroine, constantly getting picked on but always rising back up to win the day. Click HERE to read the first chapter.


                 NOVEL 6:  Biting Cold                  
     This book begins just 24 hours after the climactic ending of Drink Deep, during which Mallory, deep in her addiction to dark magic, brought Ethan back to life in an attempt to make him her familiar. As this book opens, Mallory has escaped the Order's custody and is off to Nebraska to track down the Maleficium, the magical book that serves as a prison for evil forces. Merit and Ethan are also on their way to Nebraska, but so is Seth Tate, the monstrous magical ex-mayor who has been released from prison. So...the story begins on a high note of action and suspense. Who will get to the Maleficium first? Will Mallory or Tate get their hands on it? Will Merit and Ethan survive a showdown with both Mallory and Tate? In the meantime, back in Chicago, the Greenwich Presidium (GP), governing order of the vampire Houses worldwide, has taken a preliminary vote to excommunicate the Cadogan House because of what the GP perceives as inappropriate actions in the Chicago community. Malik is still the House master until Ethan can be reinstated. Unfortunately, Ethan is suffering some damaging residual effects of Mallory's witchcraft. He can feel her in his mind and reacts to her every emotion, sometimes in a violent manner. This affects both his position with Cadogan House and his relationship with Merit. Once again, the couple is on the outs during much of this book.

     The plot twists and turns its way through a multitude of adventures, from fiery magic in Nebraska to kidnapping and sword fights in Chicago. Subplots follow Mallory as she begins to recover from her addiction, the pomposity of the GP representative who will decide Cadogan House's future, the ups and downs of Merit and Ethan's love affair, and the shocking finale to Seth Tate's story—which I never saw coming. The plot resolves Tate's story, but leaves the GP story thread to be dealt with in future books. 


     This is a solid addition to a great series that stars a couple who has the most chaotic and unfulfilled romantic life that I've ever seen in a UF series. Near the end of the book, Merit thinks to herself, "There was really no denying it now. Ethan Sullivan and I were in a relationship." (p. 335) Seriously?! They've been on-and-off since book 1—more off than on, really—but it has taken six books for them to admit that they have a "relationship." Talk about slow going! Click HERE to read the first chapter. 


     Here's my favorite quote from the book, which perfectly illustrates how the series interweaves the humdrum of everyday life with the extraordinary and dangerous events of the magical world: "When the blood and muffins were gone, we prepared for the possibility of battle." (p. 42)

                      NOVEL 7:  House Rules                      

    The primary plot revolves around the events surrounding the separation of Cadogan House from the Greenwich Presidium (GP), a decision that was made by the Cadogan House vampires at the end of Biting Cold. As the story begins, the pompous GP representatives are on their way to Chicago for the ceremony that will formalize the separation, and Ethan expects that their leader, Darius West, will have some unfriendly and underhanded tricks up his sleeve. In the meantime, Merit is dealing with a series of seemingly random murders of Chicago vampires—both rogues and House vamps.

     As the VIPs begin to arrive for the ceremony, Ethan informs Merit that, Lacey Sheriden, Merit's old nemesis (and Ethan's former girlfriend) will be one of the guests. As you can well imagine, Lacey's presence causes plenty of tension in Merit's romantic relationship with Ethan, mostly because Lacey is determined have Ethan for herself and to get rid of Merit once and for all. Merit has just moved in with Ethan, and their always-fragile romance has weathered a number of obstacles in previous books.

     Merit has one more problem—one that becomes worse because of Lacey: her membership in the Red Guard (RP). Merit joined the RP when Ethan was gone—when she thought that he was permanently dead. At that time, she made a vow to Noah (leader of Chicago's rogues and of the RP) that she would join the RP and partner with Jonah, and Merit never reneges on her word. Among the vampire masters, the RP is viewed as a spy organization that is up to no good. Therefore, when Ethan learns of Merit's RP secret involvement—and particularly when he learns that Jonah is her partner—his temper flares and their relationship hits the rocks big time.

     The two story lines (the GP visit and the murder investigation) move along at a fast pace, with the Cadogan vamps working hard to solve the murders while trying to deal with the unreasonable and outrageous demands of the GP. When a fairy artifact disappears from Ethan's apartment and reappears in the hands of the GP, Merit must add one more task to her ever-growing to-do list.

     This story fits neatly into the series story arc that deals with the struggle between the American vampires and their European oppressors. Most of the action is cerebral rather than physical, but there are a few scenes of action—particularly the one in which Merit, Ethan, and Jonah work together under great duress to save some lives.

     Merit does have one or two TSTL moments—the main one being her solo visit to John McKettrick, a man who has tried to kill her in the past. That meeting doesn't have much of a plot pay-off, so I'm not sure why the author even bothered to include it. In another implausible scene, Merit handles some scraps of aspen wood with absolutely no discomfort. In other scenes in the series, when a vampire touches aspen wood (the only wood that can kill a vamp), he or she always suffers painful effects. Why didn't the wood affect Merit this time? No explanation is provided.


    All in all, this is one of the weaker novels in this well-conceived series, primarily due to its lack of compelling action and to an overdose of adolescent, repartee among the Cadogan vamps that doesn't provide enough chuckles to justify its constant presence. Click HERE to read an excerpt from House Rules.


                      NOVEL 8:  Biting Bad                     

     What struck me hardest as I read this eighth book is that at this point in the series, Merit has been a vampire for only 10 months. That means that all of the action—the deaths, the resurrections, the betrayals, the break-ups, and all of her other torments—have occurred in less than a year's time. Life is really tough in this alternate version of Chicago.

     As the story opens, Merit and Ethan are back together, living happily (for a change) in Ethan's penthouse at Cadogan House. Fans of the series know, however, that this peaceful existence can't possibly last for very long—and they're right. Seemingly out of nowhere, anti-vampire gangs begin to target vampire-related businesses and buildings. These gangs specialize in throwing Molotov cocktails (aka fire bombs) to start fires and explosions and then immediately follow up with one-on-one attacks, all the while chanting "Clean Chicago!"


     Just as the Cadogan House vamps begin to strategize on solving this situation, they learn that the anachronistic Greenwich Presidium (GP)—the worldwide vampire governing council—has blacklisted them, meaning that they are now considered to be mortal enemies of all GP-affiliated vampires. Now the Cadogan vamps must be on high alert because they expect the GP to send assassins to get rid of them all in the Medieval manner that the old-school GP favors. Sure enough, one of Merit's old GP enemies tries to kill her, and the results of that encounter provide a mild cliffhanger that will kick off the plot for the next book.


     The plot follows Merit as she investigates the powers behind the anti-vampire forces and tries to keep from being killed. Merit suspects the involvement of her old nemesis, John McKetrick, but she has to find proof before her sole ally at the Chicago Police Department can take any action. McKetrick is now in a position of power at City Hall, so he's going to be hard to take down. 


     This is a typical CHICAGOLAND tale, with lots of action, drama, injuries, and death. The author tosses in enough red herrings to keep the level of suspense high, even though it's pretty easy to guess the identity of the primary villain. Merit is supposed to be a fierce and powerful soldier, but she spends most her time in this book being rescued from a series of dangerous situations, some of which she brings on herself. I have always enjoyed reading this series, but by now, the plots have become somewhat repetitive, so I'm hoping that Neill will take the next book off on a more innovative path.


                      STORY 8.2:  "High Stakes"                     
     Click HERE to read my review of this Luc and Lindsey story in the Kicking It anthology. 

                      NOVELLA 8.5:  "Howling for You"                     
     Fallon is the only daughter in the Keene family of werewolves. Her brother, Gabriel, is currently the Apex of the North American Central Pack, and Fallon is next in line. That means that she is "the biggest shape-shifting prize in the country." Under Pack protocol and tradition, shifters who transform into different animals shouldn't be mates, so Fallon is expected to mate with an appropriate wolf shifter. She has been interviewing "potentials" for months, but she hasn't yet found one that sparks her interest, and she never will. That's because the man who turns her on is Jeff Christopher, the tiger shifter who works with Chuck Merit and Catcher Bell in Chicago's Ombudsman agency. No matter how handsome and sexy the potentials are, they just don't measure up to Jeff. Although Fallon truly loves Jeff (and vice versa), she will have to abdicate her Apex-heir position if she mates with a shifter who isn't a werewolf. Which will Fallon choose—her soul mate or her family?

     As the story begins, Gabriel and the rest of the Pack are preparing for the induction of Connor, Gabriel's young son, into the Pack. As part of that ceremony, Connor will be crowned with the Pack's magical coronet, which has just been delivered from Pack headquarters in Memphis. The coronet "wasn't just a symbol of the NAC; it was the heart of the Apex's power. It allowed the Apex to reach the individual members of the Pack and call them together. It was a profound power…and one that had to be judiciously used." You can probably guess what happens. Yes, someone steals the coronet, and it's up to Fallon and Jeff to retrieve it.

     This is a nice little love story with enough action to carry it along at a fast pace. It's a shifters-only storyno vampires and no humansand it doesn't tie into the series story arc. But if you've been wanting to see more of Jeffthe hunky tech geek of Chicago's supernatural worldyou'll probably enjoy this novella. Click HERE to read an excerpt on the novella's Amazon.com pagejust click on the cover art.

                      NOVEL 9:  Wild Things                    
     As Blood Games ended, Ethan and Merit received the news that the vampire-hating mayor of Chicago was planning to arrest Ethan for the murder of Harold Monmonth, the power-mad Greenwich Presidium (GP) official who attacked Cadogan House, killed two human guards, and attacked Merit. Mayor Kowalcyzk is claiming that Ethan is a terrorist who must be detained at all costs. As Wild Things, begins, Ethan and Merit pack up and head for a hideout that is beyond the city limits and outside the mayor's jurisdiction. Their hide-away is on the estate of Papa Breck, head of a powerful werewolf family, and many of the werewolves are not at all happy to have a pair of vampires being sheltered on werewolf land. 

     Shortly after Ethan and Merit arrive, someone unleashes a magical attack on the werewolves, leaving several dead and one missing. At first, the werewolves believe that the vampires are behind the attack, but then they learn that a local elf settlement was recently attacked with magic and that one of their members is also missing. Both the werewolves and the elves still suspect vampire involvement, so they demand that Ethan and his allies solve this mystery by tracking down the perpetrator(s) and rescuing the two missing women.

     The suspense builds slowly as Merit begins her investigation, starting from scratch and then uncovering one small clue at a time. Eventually, those clues lead Merit back to an old frenemy, Seth Tate, the disgraced former mayor of Chicago. Naturally, there is a major showdown at the end, but Neill has written a few surprises into the final scenes. Even though I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen, my predictions fell short.

     This plot definitely doesn't have the excitement and fast pace of some of the earlier novels. And, is it just me, or is Merit losing her fighting skills rather than getting better? In almost every battle in this story, she gets badly beaten up, drops her katana or dagger, and/or gets overwhelmed by the bad guys and gals. Then, there is Merit's constant (and repetitive) gushing over Ethan's gorgeous manliness, and Ethan's constant (and smarmy) PDAwhich is relatively new in their relationship. The two are always taking time out for a smooch or two, even in the middle of some of the more dramatic action scenes, and that just seems silly, immature, and completely improbable. Those scenes, along with the all-the-same bedroom scenes, are like too-thick, too-sweet frosting on a slightly stale slice of cake. For me, the best novels were the early ones, but I'll keep reading because I've grown to like the characters so muchparticularly the supporting cast.

     Neill has another CHICAGOLAND novel coming up this summer and one next spring, so perhaps we'll be learning whether Gabriel's prophecy about that new pair of green eyes in Merit's life comes true. The plot for the next novel will no doubt involve Ethan's relationship with the GP, a story line that begins in Wild Things when GP member Lakshmi Rho calls in a favor and insists that Merit make Ethan an offer he can't refuse. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

                      NOVEL 10:  Blood Games                      
     At the end of Wild Things, Ethan challenged Darius for the position of King of the Greenwich Presidium (GP), the vampire governing council that is based in England. As this book opens, Ethan is still waiting to see what Darius’ reaction will be to the challenge. This plot line simmers on the back burner while three other story lines heat up the actiontwo connected to the GP situation and one a local issue:

1. A mysterious woman tries to blackmail Ethan, trying to force him out of his challenge to Darius, and Ethan won’t open up to Merit about what the blackmail is all about. 

2. Darius turns up in Chicago dazed and confused—glamoured by someone’s magic—and Ethan and Merit have to rescue him.

3. The Chicago police ask for Merit’s help in investigating several murders that have a supernatural flavor. This one gets Merit and Mallory back together on a crime-solving mission, just like the old days before Mallory went temporarily cuckoo. It's great to have Mallory back and at the top of her game. Also involved in the investigation are Merit's grandfather and his Ombuddies, Catcher and Jeff. 

     The story moves back and forth among these story lines all the way through the book. Merit and her team eventually resolve the second and third conflicts, but Ethan stubbornly refuses to discuss the blackmailing female with either Merit or his top lieutenants. Ethan’s behavior causes some minor dissonance in the loving couple’s relationship, but Merit eventually comes up with a way to get Ethan to talk to her. By the end of the book, the blackmailing problem, which is closely connected to the challenge, plays out in a very unexpected manner that portends major changes in the American vampire Houses. There is also a cliffhanger moment on the final pages that introduces a veiled threat against Ethan by a mystery person who is supposed to be dead. 

     The most entertaining scene comes when Jonah and Merit attend the Chicago SpringCon and Merit realizes that she and Ethan have been turned into Con characters. As Merit wanders through the exhibits, she is outraged when she gets to the "Hunkiest" table and sees "an assortment of pink, white, and pale blue panties, Ethan's green eyes staring out from the front triangle." (p. 75) Then, a Merit look-alike mistakes Merit for a Con character and criticizes her "costume" and her attitude: "It's not a bad costume…but I'm not buying your attitude. It's not really Merit. You should be channeling your inner vampire sex warrior. Like this," she said, then put her hands on her hips, canted out one leg, and smiled sensually….Maybe a little more cleavage, too." (p. 82)

     With so many story lines, we have several villains in this book, but only one is very interesting: the blackmailing woman, who turns out to have a close connection with Ethan’s early years as a vampire under the control of his vicious Master, Balthasar. I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to take away the suspense, but I will say that this villain has nuance—some layers to her personalty and her history that allow us to feel a modicum of sympathy, and eventually, respect for her. The other villains are just stereotypical bad guys, and one of them we never even meet. 

     The manner in which the vamps choose their new GP leader is reminiscent of the Hunger Games (hence the book's title), so get ready for some major action. Be aware, though, that the "games" are compressed into a very short time period, meaning that there's no opportunity to build up much suspense. I would estimate that the main showdown scene takes about a half hour or so, but that brief time is packed with danger as both Merit and Ethan fight for their lives. I do have a problem with fact that a person who failed both tests (physical and psychological, still made the top three. That doesn't seem logical to me.

     Although I nearly always have some quibbles about the adolescent quality of Merit’s personality, I still must admit that Neill is a great story teller who always pulls me into her novels right from the start. She handles the multiple story lines quite well, weaving them together seamlessly all the way through. The ending is unpredictable—I never saw it coming—and it is quite satisfactory in that it ties up the lengthy GP story arc that has occupied the previous novels, and it sends the series off in a new direction. That's a good thing because the GP story line was getting a bit stale at this point. If you are a CHICAGOLAND fan, you won’t want to miss this one. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Blood Games

                      NOVELLA 10.5:  "Lucky Break"                       
     This novella is a teaser to get you through the weeks preceding the next CHICAGOLAND novel, which arrives in early March. The plot centers on Merit and Ethan as they take a well-deserved vacation to the Colorado Rockies. All the rules of urban fantasy decree that the hero and heroine of a series can never take a peaceful vacation, and this little trip is no exception. As soon as you learn that the couple is traveling completely alone (no body guards), you know that trouble lies ahead. Making the situation even worse is that the guest cabin in which they are staying is in the middle of an isolated territory that has been the center of a century-long feud between two rogue clans of supernaturals: the Marchand clan of vampires and the McKenzie pack of mountain lion shifters. 

     Moments after their arrival, their vampire hostess arrives on their doorstep, hysterically announcing that she has just found her shifter husband dead—murdered by a blow to the head. The shifters want to kill her because they are sure that she is the murderer, but Ethan calls in his Chicago shifter allies to try to calm the situation. After lots of tense action and suspense, the murder is solved and peace reigns in the forested mountains. I was able to guess the murderer’s identity early in the story, but it was just a lucky guess because Neill doesn’t provide any overt clues.

     If you’d like to a break from the Cadogan House and Chicago's supernatural political scene, you might enjoy this wilderness adventure. On the date of this posting, the novella is selling for $1.99 at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Click HERE to read an excerpt on the novella's amazon.com page. Just click on the cover art to access the excerpt.

     The best thing about the novella is that it contains a lengthy excerpt from the upcoming Dark Debt, which kicks off the story of Balthasar's returna story line that began with the mysterious note that Ethan received at the very end of Blood Games. Yes, BalthasarEthan's presumed-dead Masteris alive and well and in Chicago for a family reunion. What could possibly go wrong?

                      NOVEL 11:  Dark Debt                       
     If you read "Lucky Break," you got a chance to read an excerpt from Dark Debt, so you know that Ethan's supposedly long-dead Master, Balthasar, appears to alive and kicking. Back at the very end of Blood Games, Ethan and Merit found an alarming note from Balthasar in their room, and the threat that he poses sets up the plot for this novel. 

     As the story begins, it is three weeks later, and Ethan, Merit, Mallory, and Catcher are having a peaceful picnic in the park when Ethan is notified that hordes of paparazzi have gathered at Cadogan House demanding that Ethan respond to the news that Balthasar is in Chicago for a family reunion. Ethan is still in complete denial that Balthasar could be alive, but just as he is dealing with the reporters at his gate, Balthasar himself hops out of a limousine and immediately glamours the entire crowd. Balthasar's mad creepiness put me in mind of Jack Nicholson's iconic "Here's Johnny" ax scene in the classic movie, The Shining. He is obviously a malevolent monster who has come to Chicago with some evil plans in mind. In fact, as soon as Ethan allows him inside Cadogan House, he "calls" Merit to him and destroys her resistance to vampire glamour by putting her under his blatantly sexual control. "I became a marionette, pulled toward him as if gravity's axis had shifted, sucking me sideways. I fought backof course I fought back, tried to pinwheel my arms and legs to move. But this effort was useless. He dragged me stiffly forward, pulled me toward him by the sheer power of his will." In one violent and stomach-churning scene, Balthasar psychically invades Merit's dreams, dragging her into a realm of illusion where he attempts to seduce her by making himself look like Ethan. "Balthasar hissed and led me toward the bed…He smiled, all teeth and fangs, weapons meant to penetrate, rip, kill. He lowered his face to my neck, and I struggled beneath him…But…I was trapped…"

     In a related plot line, Ethan learns that Navarre House is financially entangled with the Circle, a powerful mob that specializes in cyber-crime. Morgan, Navarre's Master (and Merit's one-time boyfriend), has nearly lost control of his novitiates, many of whom are still loyal to their venomous late Master, Celina. Because of Celina's poor management, Morgan doesn't have the funds to pay off the Circle debt, so the Circle demands other types of payment. For example, they want Morgan's vampires to assassinate one of their enemies.

     As the story plays out, Merit and Ethan spend their time chasing down Balthasar, investigating his whereabouts during the past century, and trying to sort out the Navarre House's financial situation. In the meantime, they meet a new villain, Adrien Reed, a wealthy and powerful real estate tycoon with ties to Merit's father (who plays a key role in this novel). And if that's not enough, Mallory and Catcher add to the mix with some life-changing news of their own. All in all, this is a compelling story with nonstop action, over-the-top drama (mostly from Balthasar and the Circle thugs), and a deepening of Ethan and Merit's romantic relationship. A handful of minor scenes add humor (especially when Ethan finally learns about his "Darth Sullivan" nickname). Other scenes lead us through some changes in relationships (with Helen beginning to soften her harsh attitude toward Merit, and with a bitter breakdown in Merit and Jonah's partnership). 

     Just a few quibbles: As usual, Merit has too many immature moments that undermine the strength of her charactermostly food-related nonsense. And regarding the plot lines involving Balthasar and Adrien Reed: Neill sprinkles enough clues (too many?) to allow the reader to deduce what's going on long before Ethan and Merit figure it out.

     If you are a fan of this series, you won't want to miss this novel because it is the beginning of a new series story arc involving not only a new villain, but the early days of the brand new Assembly of American Masters (AAM), America's answer to the kaput Greenwich Presidium (GP). Although Dark Debt resolves some of the key conflicts, we still don't know the details of Adrien Reed's long game and we don't know exactly why the Circle's is out to get Sanford King, the man they hired Navarre House to assassinate. And then there's the question about why Nicole (Atlanta's Master) knew about Balthasar's presence in the U.S. for months but never notified Ethan. 


     Click HERE to read the first chapter of Dark Debt. Click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                      NOVEL 12:  Midnight Marked                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     As the Chicagoland Vampires series continues, Merit and Ethan find themselves in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, where winning may require the ultimate sacrifice…

     A vampire’s grudges don’t stay dead long…Merit is one of Chicago's most skilled vampire warriors; these days, she doesn't scare easily. But she and Master vampire Ethan have made a new and powerful enemy, and he won't give up until he owns the Windy City. 

     With his last plan thwarted, he's more determined than ever to watch Cadogan burn. Ethan has put the House's vampires on high alert, but their enemy will stop at nothing, including pitting supernatural against supernatural. In this deadly game of cat-and-mouse, the stakes are life or death—and winning might mean sacrificing everything...

MY REVIEW: 
     The first chapter begins peacefully, with Merit and Ethan on their way to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field accompanied by Catcher and Mallory Bell. (Yes, the sorcerers are now a happily married couple.) Merit is quite excited because this is the first Cubs game she has attended since becoming a vampire one year ago. (It is always a shock to me to realize how little time has passed since the first book.) Before they even enter the ball park, Mallory feels a thread of dark magic in the air that leads them to a dead shifter lying in an alley next to a trestle pedestal covered with alchemy symbols. The murder was committed by a vampire, who escapes by outrunning and then shooting Merit. This scene sets up the plot: Merit and Ethan and their crew must track down the killer vampire and the sorcerer who drew the magical symbols, but they must also figure out what those symbols mean and who sent the pair on their murderous mission.

     As Merit and Ethan search for clues, they find more sites with the mysterious symbols and soon figure out that their current arch nemesis, Adrien Reed, is at the heart of the mystery. We met Reed, a wealthy and powerful real estate tycoon, in the previous novel. Reed is obviously a dangerous psychotic with a messiah complex. He sees life as a game and plans to be the winner. As Merit explains, "He uses the personal…He used Balthasar against Ethan, he used money against Celina, and he's used the Rogue [vampire] for me…" (Note: The identity of that rogue vampire is a huge shocker.)

     Since Reed has made no secret of the fact that he intends to get rid of Ethan and all the rest of the supernaturals and take over the city, Merit and her friends don't have a moment to lose. As more bodies and more symbols are found, the vampires are forced into a major time crunch in which they must gather enough evidence to put Reed away and to stop whatever magical mischief he is planning to unleash. 

     Several story threads related to past events and relationships are woven through the main plot: an update on Merit's turbulent relationship with Jonah (her estranged Red Guard partner); cracks in the tenuous alliance between the vampires and the shifters; and improvement in Merit's relationship with her father (but not with her brother). At the end of the book, Ethan and Merit take a giant step down the path leading to their romantic destiny. 

     Ethan and Merit meet up with a new character in this book: a young necromancer named Annabelle Shaw, who assists them with their case. She is an interesting and charming character, so I'm sure that we will be seeing more of her in future books.

     Although Neill continues to stuff in too many detailed food and clothing descriptions, this is still a great book. The alchemy plot is fresh and inventive, and the big showdown scene is not your usual gun vs. fang fight. Adding the likable Annabelle to the character mix is brilliant because many times in a long-running series, the only new characters are the villains, who are usually one-dimensional idiots who are seen briefly and then terminated. Annabelle's presence definitely freshens up the plot as we begin to learn her back story (she is very, very pregnant in this book—just three weeks from her delivery date).

     To sum things up, then, this is another solid addition to a terrific series, with a suspenseful, fast-paced plot and the addition of an interesting new character. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Midnight Marked. Click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Midnight Marked is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

No comments:

Post a Comment