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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Amanda Stevens: THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN


Author: Amanda Stevens
Series: THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN 
Plot Type: GothicUrban Fantasy
Ratings: Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor2 
Publisher and Titles: Mira
     .5   "The Abandoned" (prequel e-novella, 2011)
    1     The Restorer (hardback, 4/2011; paperback, 2/2012)
    2     The Kingdom (3/2012)
    3     The Prophet (4/2012) 
    4     The Visitor (3/2016)
    5     The Sinner (9/27/2016)
    6     The Awakening (3/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 9/26/16 to include a review of The Sinner, the fifth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building, the publisher's blurb for the prequel novella, and reviews of the first four novels.

                         NOVEL 5: The Sinner                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     I am a living ghost, a wanderer in search of my purpose and place. I'm a cemetery restorer by trade, but my calling has evolved from that of ghost seer to death walker to detective of lost souls. I solve the riddles of the dead so the dead will leave me alone. 

     I've come to Seven Gates Cemetery nursing a broken heart, but peace is hard to come by, for the ghosts here and for me. When the body of a young woman is discovered in a caged grave, I know that I've been summoned for a reason. Only I can unmask her killer. I want to trust the detective assigned to the case, for he is a ghost seer like me. But how can I put my faith in anyone when supernatural forces are manipulating my every thought? When reality is ever-changing? And when the one person I thought I could trust above all others has turned into a diabolical stranger?

MY REVIEW: 
A mortsafe over an ancient grave
     This novel is marginally better than the previous one, with fewer repetitive episodes of "niggles" and "goose bumps," although poor Amelia does spend a lot of time quivering in fear as dark shadows swirl around her and things go bump in the night. This time around, Amanda is restoring an old, overgrown cemetery in Ascension, North Carolina, when she discovers a circle of twelve mortsafes. Historically, these padlocked iron cages were set over graves in Europe to prevent grave robbers from stealing the corpse, but the cages that Amanda finds appear to have been used to keep the corpses in—because they were buried alive. Although most of the caged graves are decades old, one of the them has a fresh corpse—a young woman who managed to free her arms from the earth before she died.

     I would be remiss if I discussed Amanda's story without including her continuing heartbreak over her break-up with John Devlin, the man she considers to be her one true love. (SPOILER AHEAD) At the end of the previous book, Devlin learned some shocking information about his family history, and based on that, he told Amanda that they could no longer be together because it would put her life in danger. He provided no further explanation than that, and she continues to be melodramatically heartbroken that she has lost him. In this book, her devastation grows when she learns that Devlin has a gorgeous new woman in his life. 

     But there is also a new man in Amanda's life: Detective Lucien Kendrick, a handsome, tattooed police detective with topaz-colored eyes who seems to be as attracted to Amanda as she is to him. Although Amanda is drawn to Kendrick, she finds him "fascinating in the way one might admire the coil of a cobra or the crouch of a tiger." 

     And then there is a third man, a former nemesis named Darius Goodwine, a powerful voodoo practitioner we met in The Prophet. Amanda owes Darius for helping her save Devlin's life, and she's pretty sure that he's here to call in that favor. First, though, Darius gives Amanda several warnings: that her magic has grown so powerful that she leaves a magical, easy-to-track trail, that she doesn't know John Devlin's true nature, and that her discovery of the caged graves puts her in danger from two sinister, fanatical groups: the Congé ('kän-jā) and the Eternal Brotherhood of Resurrectionists. According to Darius, the Congé are "zealots who believe it their mission to stamp out that which they do not understand," which would include a person like Amanda, who can communicate with ghosts and see into people's minds. The Resurrectionists, on the other hand, worship magic and use it to raise the dead. Darius also warns Amanda that someone she knows well cannot be trusted. Could this be Devlin? Her friend, Dr. Shaw? Kendrick? 

     Darius also tells Amanda that she is the only one who has the power to unmask the killer of the young woman in the most recent grave, and that if she doesn't find that murderer, more deaths will follow. (No pressure!) All of these elements feed into the plot, which focuses on Amelia's murder investigation. That investigation has a connection with the Order of the Coffin and the Claw (OCC), an organization that was introduced in The Visitor and that includes Devlin and his grandfather as members.

     After Amanda's conversation with Darius, she heads back to Charlotte for a visit to her friend and mentor, Dr. Rupert Shaw, the founder of the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies in Charlotte (and also a member of the OCC). Dr. Shaw fills in some more information on the Congé ('kän-jā) and the Eternal Brotherhood of Resurrectionists, but Amanda is certain that he is not telling her everything that he knows, soonce againshe is on her own in unfamiliar, ghostly territory.

     As is usual in this series, the plot unwinds in a series of creepy, night-time incidents in which Amanda and her dog, Angus, hear/see/feel evil, otherworldly "things" that generally fade away after they scare her into yet another bout of shivers and shakes. The house in which Amanda is staying in Ascension was the scene of some brutal murders several decades ago. Before Kendrick explains the gory history of the house to her, Amanda feels no ghostly presences there, but after she learns the horrific details, the shadowsinside and outbegin to hide hostile "watchers." When you finally learn the identity of the villain, you will look back on the scary "watcher" scenes at the house with bewilderment, because they appear to serve no purpose other than to amp up the suspense and scare Amelia and the reader. The night creepersone in particulardon't really have any reason for their creepy-crawly actions, so it's just another case of authorial manipulation and an awkward attempt at throwing a few red herrings into the plot to confuse the reader (and the heroine).

     The requisite showdown scene unmasks the villain and puts Amanda in life-threatening danger, but since this is not the final book in the series, you know that she will escape with her life. Even though this novel is slightly better than the preceding one, this series continues to chug along at a mediocre level. 

   Click HERE to read a print excerpt from The Sinner on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art. Click HERE to listen to an audio excerpt on another version of that Amazon page by clicking on the phrase "Audible Narration" beneath the cover art.

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

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
      Is there such a thing as gothic urban fantasy? Because that's my take on this suspenseful, intricately plotted ghostly series that takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. You'll find no vampires, werewolves, fairies, or demons in this world, but you will find plenty of ghostly apparitions. These ghosts are definitely not the Casper-friendly type—at least most of them aren't. Each ghost wants to find a human to pull energy from—like an energy vampire—until that human is just a drained and burned-out husk. 

     The series heroine is Amelia Gray, adopted daughter of a cemetery caretaker who allowed his daughter to roam freely through cemeteries all during her childhood. Not surprisingly, Amelia has chosen a cemetery-related career field and has worked hard to become a nationally acclaimed expert in the field of cemetery restoration. Both Amelia and her father can see ghosts, and he has warned her repeatedly that to protect herself from being haunted, she must observe these four rules:

1. Never acknowledge the dead, meaning that you don't look at them and don't speak to them
2. Never stray too far from hallowed ground
3. Keep away from people who are haunted by ghosts because they are a terrible threat to you
4. Never ever tempt fate.
     Throughout her life, Amanda has always followed these rules to the letter, and they have bound her to a solo existence. She's always on the lookout for errant ghosts who may try to latch on to her, so the safest and easiest thing for her to do is to work long hours and then go home—alone. She spends her days in the cemeteries and her nights on her blog, where she is known as the Graveyard Queen.

                    PREQUEL NOVELLA: "The Abandoned"                    
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     There are rules for dealing with ghosts. Too bad Ree Hutchins doesn't know them. When her favorite patient at a private mental hospital passes away, psychology student Ree Hutchins mourns the elderly woman's death. But more unsettling is her growing suspicion that something unnatural is shadowing her. 

     Amateur ghost hunter Hayden Priest believes Ree is being haunted. Even Amelia Gray, known in Charleston as The Graveyard Queen, senses a gathering darkness. Driven by a force she doesn't understand, Ree is compelled to uncover an old secret and put abandoned souls to rest—before she is locked away forever.

                         NOVEL 1: The Restorer                         
     As the book opens, Amelia has been given the job of restoring Oak Grove Cemetery, a centuries-old graveyard on the grounds of a private school in Charleston. When a freshly killed body is discovered at Oak Grove in a shallow grave that has been dug on top of an older grave, the police ask for Amelia's help in protecting the integrity of the historic cemetery while they do their investigative work. Now, all of that would be fine if it weren't for the fact that the detective who seeks Amelia out is being haunted by two ghosts: a beautiful woman and a young child. To add to the problem, Detective John Devlin is very attractive, and Amelia feels a definite connection with him. What's Amelia to do? If she agrees to work with Devlin, she will be breaking rule 3 and probably rule 4. But if she doesn't, she'll never see Devlin again, and she's not quite ready for that. 

     As more bodies show up at Oak Grove, Amelia and Devlin sort though a myriad of clues, and their mutual attraction grows stronger and stronger. In the meantime, Amelia breaks rule 1 when she acknowledges the presence of Devlin's girlish ghost, who turns out to be his dead daughter, Shanikilled in an automobile accident along with Devlin's wife, Mariama. So...it's still very early in the story, and Amelia, for the first time in her life, has already broken three of her father's four rules.

     If it weren't for the spooky, creepy, look-over-your-shoulder ghost scenes and the threats of supernatural violence, this could almost be a cozy mystery in that we have an amateur sleuth, dead bodies showing up (with few graphic details), a bunch of quirky citizens, and several red herrings just to make things interesting. Also included are a lot of interesting historical facts about cemeteries, a smidgen of Gullah mythology, and some parapsychology theory, all of which are integrally tied to the plot. Stevens obviously loves Charleston, and she writes beautifully descriptive passages that give an authentic impression of that stately southern town. Click HERE to view seven short videos of Charleston, past and present. The video entitled "Charleston, Where History Lives" shows some of the landmarks mentioned in The Restorer

     I enjoyed the story and read it almost all in one sitting. The fast-paced plot pulls you right along as new clues are discovered and fresh bodies are unearthed. I have to say that several scenes gave me shivers and goosebumps. If you're looking for suspense and mystery, and if you love well-told ghost stories, this is the series for you. Be aware that even though the primary mystery is solved by the end of the book, Stevens leaves us with a number of unanswered questions that will no doubt be dealt with in the next books.

     Here are two quotations from The Restorer that will give you a taste of Stevens's descriptive writing:

     Here is Amanda in a seaside restaurant enjoying the sunset: "Behind me, the whole city was bathed in crimson; before me, a fractured sky shifted into kaleidoscopic patterns of rose, lavender and gold. A Carolina sunset never failed to move me, but with the approaching twilight everything had turned gray. Mist drifted in from the sea and settled over the treetops like a silver canopy. As I watched the gauzy swirl from a table by the window, my elation faded. Dusk is a dangerous time for people like me. An in-between time just as the seashore and the edge of a forest are in-between places. The Celts had a name for these landscapes—caol' ait [pronounced kweel awtch]. Thin places where the barrier between our world and the next is but a gossamer veil." 

     Next, here is a goose-bumps scene in which Amanda has had a flat tire on an isolated country road on a very dark night: "I saw a flicker of movement just beyond a row of trees. The hair bristled at the back of my neck, but I didn't outwardly react [rule 1]. Instead, I made another circle, surveilling the woods from the corner of my eye. I saw it there, hiding in the gloom. Whatever it was, it had followed me all the way to Beaufort County. And now it hunkered among the trees, watching me. I didn't move, didn't even dare breathe....This thing was dark and dank, with no more substance than a shadow. But I could feel its presence. The evil that emanated from the woods was palpable....A foul chill oozed through the closed windows, turning my stomach, making my heart pound even harder. I saw a flash at the passenger window. There one moment, gone the next."

     Click HERE to go to this book's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt from The Restorer by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                        NOVEL 2: The Kingdom                         
     Amelia has turned her back on Charleston and her ex-boyfriend, Devlin, and has accepted the job of restoring a cemetery in Asher Falls, a village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that was cut off from civilization when its main highway was flooded by the reservoir created by a huge dam. The only way in and out of town is by ferry. When Amelia arrives in Asher Falls, she sees no one on the streets. "If not for a few scattered vehicles, I might have thought the place deserted. The streets were as silent as a tomb, the storefronts dark and lonely. The whole town had the quiet, forlorn air of the abandoned." So...from the beginning, Amelia realizes that Asher Falls isn't your typical sleepy little southern village

     On the ferry, Amelia met Thane Asher, the youngest member of the town's wealthy, namesake family, who tells her a spooky tale about a graveyard under the murky waters and coffin bells that ring from the misty-shrouded reservoir at night. As Amelia meets the residents of Asher Falls, she is sure that they are keeping deep and awful secrets. Then she has some spooky experiences at the cemetery she is restoring and finds a hidden grave near a rhododendron bald (aka thicket). Not to mention the ghost of a young woman who floats into her back yard every night, begging to be acknowledged.

     The plot follows Amelia as her experiences in Asher Falls get spookier and spookier. Wild howls fill the woods at night. Bear traps are set up to try to trap her. A strange man peers out at her from the underbrush at the cemetery, and the angel statues seem to be glaring at her. Here, Amelia sums up her situation: "The silence seemed palpable as I stood on the trail holding my breath....So many things rushed through my head. Wayne's warning about wild animals. The face wavering in the pool at the waterfall. The chill of the wind, that awful howling. I had the sense that i was being stalked, but was the tracker human, animal...or something from the other side?" 

     When Amelia hears the story of a young woman who died several decades ago, she begins to piece together a theory about the secret grave, the thing in the woods, and other spine-tingling clues that are piling up all over the place. But it takes a trip home to Charleston for her to solve the mystery of the dead woman and of her own family heritage.

     This book is not constructed quite as gracefully as the first novel. The characters are sometimes obviously manipulated into taking actions just to keep the plot moving in the right direction or (at the very end) because they need to be in a certain place at a certain time just to tie up all the loose ends. It is not clear to me just what powers the three supporting female characters (Luna, Bryn, and Catrice) have. Hints are given, but no concrete details. 

     Another weak point in the conflict is Thane's grandfather, the Asher family patriarch. How could he possibly have committed all of the crimes he admits to without ever being caught—or even suspected? Seems impossible to me. I can't be any more specific with giving away spoilers, so I'll let you be the judge. 

     And one last criticism: The addition of Ivy, a teen-age sociopath, to the already crowded cast of characters seems superfluous to me. Ivy's big scene at the end appears to be yet another obvious plot manipulation in which someone needed to be the catalyst that propelled Amelia into one last critical experience. The last sentence of the book sends Amelia back to Charleston for the third novel.

     Click HERE to go to this book's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt from The Kingdom by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                         NOVEL 3: The Prophet                       
     Amelia has returned to her beloved Charleston, where the ghosts of Mariama and Shani return to her side, Mariama to threaten her and Shani to beg Amelia to help her. Then, the ghost of Robert Fremont, a dead undercover policeman, shows up once again. We met Fremont back in book 1, when he pretended to be Tom Gerrity, a shifty private investigator and former policeman. Fremont, whose nickname was "the Prophet," commands Amelia to find out who killed him two years ago. When Amelia asks why he's in such a hurry, Fremont says that "The stars have finally aligned. The players have all taken their places." (p. 28) Amelia spends the rest of the story trying to figure out just what he means as she searches for clues in a variety of dangerous places.

     Several new characters are introduced in this book: the two Perilloux sisters (Isabel and Clementine), whom Devlin helped in a domestic violence case years ago, and Darius Goodwine, grandson of Essie, the Gullah root woman we met in book 1. Darius is a powerful voodoo practitioner who specializes in the use of gray dust, which can cause hallucinations and even death. I'm not exactly sure why the Perilloux sisters were mixed into the plot of this story because they weren't really needed. Their roles reminded me of Ivy's function in book 2—inserted into the story line and manipulated by the author solely to advance the plot.

     This book is even more woo-woo than the previous two, with lots of African voodoo mythology and with Amelia eventually going beyond the veil during a climactic scene near the end. Amelia is drugged several times, so she also has some hallucinatory experiences. Once again, the author provides several red herrings to keep the reader from guessing the answers to the mysteries that Amelia turns up during her investigation.

     Throughout the book, Amelia goes through an increasingly familiar routine: She has a ghostly experience or overhears a conversation and then she thinks about it at great length, turning it over and over in her mind as she meditates on how it relates to all of the other clues that she has collected up to that point. This ritual occurred a few times in book 1, increased in frequency in book 2, and has gone overboard in book 3. It's like the author is beating the reader over the head with the clues—restating them over and over again, primarily, I think, to keep the red herrings in the forefront. 

     This is my least favorite of the books so far for several reasons, the first of which I just described. Then there are Amelia's never-ending breathless murmurs about how wonderful Devlin is, how well-dressed he is, how cute his drawl is, how he is the only man for her, etc., etc. She sounds like a pre-teen with a crush on a rock star. This series got off to a strong start with The Restorer, but it has gone down in quality with each book since. Now, it's at a C-level—a run-of-the-mill ghost story with a few annoying authorial tics.

     Click HERE to go to this book's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt from The Prophet by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                         NOVEL 4: The Visitor                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
   My name is Amelia Gray. I'm the Graveyard Queen. Restoring lost and abandoned cemeteries is my profession, but I'm starting to believe that my true calling is deciphering the riddles of the dead. Legend has it that Kroll Cemetery is a puzzle no one has ever been able to solve. For over half a century, the answer has remained hidden within the strange headstone inscriptions and intricate engravings. Because uncovering the mystery of that tiny, remote graveyard may come at a terrible price. 

    Years after their mass death, Ezra Kroll's disciples lie unquiet, their tormented souls trapped within the walls of Kroll Cemetery, waiting to be released by someone strong and clever enough to solve the puzzle. For whatever reason, I'm being summoned to that graveyard by both the living and the dead. Every lead I follow, every clue I unravel brings me closer to an unlikely killer and to a destiny that will threaten my sanity and a future with my love, John Devlin.

MY REVIEW: 
     It has been four years since the last GRAVEYARD QUEEN novel was published, so I was really looking forward to The Visitor. Unfortunately, my expectations were met with disappointment as I read chapter after chapter of repetitive scenes in which Amelia suffers from fearful shivers (26 times) and shudders (13); cold chills (30); prickly, creepy-crawly feelings on the nape of her neck (10); feelings of dread (14); eerie feelings of being watched (13); and assorted episodes of goosebumps, gooseflesh, and chill bumps. You'd think that with all this spooky foreshadowing something would actually happen, but no, not until the very end of the booklong after I stopped caring about what was going on in Amelia's life. I will admit that there was one middle-of-the-night intruder scene that livened things up very briefly, but after that, the story goes on to introduce one weird character/entity/shadow after another, none of which really does anything but hang around being spooky (and, thus, causing Amelia's chills, prickles, shudders, etc.). 

     In between Amelia's episodes of creepy feelings, she gives us a constant stream of interior monologues in which she summarizes her slowly growing collection of clues and asks herself endless rhetorical questions like these: "...where did I go from here? Where did I search for clues…?" "The last thing I wanted to do was …investigate, but what choice did I have?" Additionally, Amelia has a series of "niggles": "Something niggled." "…a guilty conscience niggled." "His absence niggled..." "The line niggled…" All of these niggles are intuitive feelings that various people, things, and events are critical to her investigationnothing concrete, just niggles. After a few chapters of the never-ending shivers, unanswerable rhetorical questions, and baseless niggles, I found that I had completely lost interest in Amelia's investigation. 
Stereoscope (above)
Stereogram (below)

     The novel's primary story line begins with Amelia's discovery of a stereoscope and an old stereogram (stereoscopic photograph) in the dank, dark basement of her rental house. 
NOTE: A stereoscope is a device for viewing an almost identical pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, as a single three-dimensional image. The stereographic photograph at right would appear as a single 3-D image when viewed through a stereoscope.
     As Amelia begins to investigate the weird photograph (of a man standing in front of a house with a pair of conjoined twins), she realizes that her own life is closely tied to the image because the woman who is peering out of the second-story window of the house in the photograph looks exactly like Amelia. Eventually, she gets drawn to yet another old cemetery. This one is the final resting place for the bodies of a group of cult members who supposedly committed suicide in the 1950swhich is about the time the photograph was taken. Now that's a red flag for me because stereoscopes were at their height of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the photographs were generally taken by professional photographers. It's difficult to believe that some young girls were taking their own stereoscopic photographs in the 1950s. It just doesn't ring true to me.

     In any case, Amelia continues her investigation, which eventually leads her back to her own family history. What she discovers is even more weird than what she learned about her magical genetics in the previous novel. By the end of the book, Amanda has been forced to deal with swarms of honeybees and cicadas, a cacophony of dead voices in her head, three mysterious keys, and numerous shadowy entities that stalk her everywhere she goes.

     As if that weren't enough, Amelia's romantic situation with John Devlin is getting extremely rocky. Although Devlin continues to disavow the existence of magic, Amelia senses that he is seeing some of the same otherworldly creatures that she does, but refuses to admit it. Also, her growing magical powers allow her to go into Devlin's mind where she sees him interacting with his dead wife and his grandfather, who is still alive and is a member of the mysterious Order of the Coffin and the Claw (as is Amelia's good friend and mentor, Dr. Rupert Shaw from the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies). The book ends with a romantic cliff-hanger for Amelia and Devlin. (And, by the way, why does Amelia always call him Devlin? Don't most women use their boyfriends' first names when they are talking to or about them?)

     All in all, this book just didn't hit the mark for metoo many creepy-crawly feelings and not enough action to balance out the excess of interior monologues. I probably will not read the next novel, but I will post the publisher's blurb when it becomes available. Click HERE to go to the Amazon.com page for The Visitor 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 The Visitor is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.

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