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Monday, August 1, 2011

Jenn Bennett: ARCADIA BELL SERIES


Author:  Jenn Bennett
Series:  ARCADIA BELL
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality4; Humor3
Publisher and Titles:  Pocket:
          Kindling the Moon (6/2011)
          Summoning the Night (4/2012)
          "Leashing the Tempest" (e-novella, 12/2012)
          Binding the Shadows (6/2013)
          Banishing the Dark (5/2014) (FINAL) 

     This post was revised and updated on 6/14/14 to include a review of Banishing the Dark, the fourth and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the novella and novels 1, 2, and 3.  

            NOVEL 4: Banishing the Shadows            
     Let me begin by saying that I really hate to see this series end. It has been a reliably exciting and suspenseful series with skillfully drawn characters, intricately crafted plots, and an intriguing series story arc. The heroine has just the right amount of angst in her interior monologuesnot the endless wallows of self-pitying anguish that we sometimes see, but enough that we admire her ability to keep moving forward, despite her tragic childhood.

     As the cover blurb tells you, "The ultimate mother-daughter fight is about to do down." In Binding the Shadows, Cady took the evil Ambrose Dare out of the picture, but now her mother is planning to jump out of the Æthyr to the mortal plane and possess Cady's body and soul. This is what happens in the first fifty pages to set up the plot for this novel: Cady recovers from the severe beating she took in the climax of the previous novel. When Cady is finally released from the hospital, she learns that she is pregnant with Lon's child. Then, her guardian spirit, Priya, tells her that Mom has killed a powerful demon lord on the Æthyric plane and is working on a way to come after Cady. Priya warns Cady that the only way to save herself is to find the Moonchild spell that her mother used to conceive her and reverse the ritual. Both Cady and Lon fear that Mom will read Cady's mind and learn about the baby, so Cady talks Lon into wiping all memory of the pregnancy from her mind. Unfortunately, this also erases all of Cady's memories of being Lon's lover. Oh, and one more thing: Cady now can wield every knack known to demonkindfrom teleportation to healing to super strength, and more.

     So…as the action gets going, Lon and Cady decide to find the private investigator Dare hired to look into Cady's past before they go after the spell. This means that Lon has to keep Cady safe without ever mentioning the baby, which makes Cady wonder why Lon, whom she now views as just a friend, is being so over-protective. Meanwhile, Priya is furious that Lon and Cady aren't searching for the spell, so he challenges Jupe to do the job. From that point on, the story-telling is split between Cady's first-person voice and Jupe's third-person point of view, with Cady telling most of the story. 

     Cady and Lon's adventures involve a variety of eccentric characters, including a self-exiled Ekklesia Eleusia (E.E.) leader who knows some secrets about Cady's past and a snake-handling evangelist who views Cady as an abomination who must be eliminated. Then, they are trapped by a deadly landslide, and, finally, Cady must survive her eventual clash with her mother. In the process, Cady learns the entire shocking truth about her genetic heritage. Meanwhile, Jupe goes off on his own adventures: locating a local E.E. chapter, searching for people who might know about the spell, and meeting a beautiful young girl in the process.

     As usual, the plot is complex, but not convoluted. Each clue that Cady and Lon discover leads them on to the next step in their search. Unlike the previous novels, Cady and Lon are together in this one all the way through, even though Cady doesn't really understand why Lon won't leave her side, not even for a moment. Cady's shyness with Lon and her confused feelings about their sleeping arrangements are entertaining to watch, especially when we see Lon in the background seething with restrained passion. Remember, Cady doesn't remember ever having slept with Lon, but Lon remembers every one of the passion-filled nights he spent with her. Don't worry, though, Cady and Lon have plenty of love scenes as she falls in love with him all over again. There is even one lusty scene in which they are both in their transmutated forms (with lots of sexy tale stroking going on).

     This is a terrific ending for a wonderful series. I can't say enough about Bennett's skills in character building and plot development. If you haven't been reading the series, please don't start with this book. Go back to Kindling the Moon and enjoy Cady's entire journey to her eventual HEA

     Click HERE to go to this novella's amazon.com page and read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art. Click HERE and scroll down a bit to read Bennett's original first pages, which did not make it to the published edition.

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     Set in the Big Sur area on California's Central Coast, this series follows the adventures of Arcadia ("Cady") Bell (aka Seléne Duval), a 25-year-old magician with developing powers and a tragic family history. (Isn't that always the case with urban fantasy heroines?) As the series opens, Cady owns and works in the Tambuku Tiki Lounge with her former college roommate, Kar Yee.

     In this world, there are two main types of supernaturals: magicians (similar to mages or witches) and demons. The demons are divided into two groups: Earthbounds, who look like regular mortals but have various magical powers, and Æthyric demons, who live in another dimension and look like the huge, scaly, horned creatures of myth and legend. Æthyric demons can be summoned by magicians who have enough talent and power. Using a particularly powerful spell, Earthbounds can be transmutated, meaning that they gain the ability to change back and forth from human form and demonic form. Each supernatural person/creature has his or her own particular knacka particular magical ability (e.g., empathy, telekinesis, persuasion)

     In this world, humans who don't believe in the existence of Earthbounds, magic, or anything else supernatural are called savages. If a child has one Earthbound parent and one human parent, he or she is always human and is called an "Ugly Duckling." 

     Each demon has a colorful halo (similar to an aura), but most magicians don't, so Arcadia's silver halo sets her apart. Here, Cady explains: "Yep, that's right. Demons have halos. Everything preternatural does. Not a static, detached ring like you see in religious paintings, but more of a diffused, colorful cloud....My small, silver halo didn't quite look like the nebulous green and blue halos on the demons who frequented our bar, but it still came in handy; most demons wouldn't normally come near a practicing magician with a ten-foot pole, much less frequent a bar owned by one, but my strange halo granted me a wary trust." (Kindling the Moon,  p. 5

     Here, Arcadia describes how she "kindles" a spell: "Different spells called for different kinds of magick, but the energy I needed to power a binding like this had to be amplified, or “kindled.” The easiest way to think of magical energy—Heka—was to picture it as a wood log in a fireplace. Just as wood burns when you put a match to it, Heka transforms into a more intense energy when it’s been kindled by an outside source; electricity was just one of several ways to do that." (Kindling the Moon, p. 9)    

     Arcadia has a magical helper in Priya, her personal guardian, an Æthyric  messenger spirit that can be called on for information or help. As the series opens, Priya appears to Cady in the form of a noncorporeal hologram that has a birdlike head and a unisex body. Priya is important to Cady because of its ability to relay messages across and within the Æthyr. 

     Arcadia has been on her own and on the run for seven years, ever since her parents were accused of the brutal, magical murders of four leaders of several magical orders. Her parents faked their own deaths and escaped together. They faked Arcadia's death, too, but left her behind to be looked after by the Ekklesia Eleusia (E.E.), the occult order to which they belonged. Arcadia has gone through a series of faked identities, and now she finally has settled down into a life in which she feels relatively safeas the  half-owner of a tiki bar where she works as a bartender and bouncer. Arcadia can cast powerful spells, but she is a self-taught magician, without much training

     Click HERE to read "An Impromptu Tour of Morella, California," the fictional town in which Arcadia lives. Click HERE and scroll down a bit for a look at portraits of the three lead characters: Arcadia, Lon, and Jupe.    

            NOVEL 1: Kindling the Moon            
     As book 1 opens, Arcadia watches a television news bulletin that her parents have been spotted alive. Soon thereafter, the head of Luxe (a rival to E.E.) demands that E.E. turn over either Arcadia or her parents for punishment for the four murders. The Caliph Superior of E.E., whom Arcadia has known and trusted since childhood, gives Arcadia two weeks to prove her parents' innocence, or E.E. will find them and turn them over to Luxe. One of Arcadia's friends introduces her to Lon Butler, an enigmatic Earthbound demonologist with a huge, mostly stolen, library of ancient demonic texts. Since Arcadia has a partial description of the demon that was involved in the murders her parents are accused of, she asks Lon to search his books to find that demon so that she can summon him and ask him about the murders. In this world, if a summoner asks a demon a question, that demon must answer truthfully

     The story follows Arcadia and Lon as they attempt to track down the demon and save Arcadia's parents. On the way, they meet with violence at a local demon club, battle a bounty hunter who threatens Lon's son, Jupiter ("Jupe") uncover secrets from Arcadia's past that will change her life forever, and fall in love. The only happy moments for Arcadia in this book are the ones in which she and Lon develop their budding romance. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Kindling the Moon.

            NOVEL 2: Summoning the Night            
     In book 2, Cady and Lon once again find themselves involved with the Hellfire Club, this time with its president, Ambrose Dare. Thirty years ago during the days before Halloween, a never-identified serial kidnapper snatched seven children of Hellfire Club members, and those children disappeared without a trace. Now, it's happening again. Someone is kidnapping Hellfire Club children, but this time it's only the children of those who can transmutate. That would include the sons of both Lon and Dare. Dare suspects Jesse Bishop, a former Club member who was turned down when he begged for transmutative powers, and he wants Cady to track Bishop down

     The story follows Cady as she searches for leads and attempts to find Bishop, but then must look elsewhere for a suspect when Bishop turns out to have been dead since the earlier kidnappings. The story reads almost like a police procedural, with Cady and Lon following the clues to the final solution. The ending ties up most of the story threads except for one. That one involves Ambrose Dare, who has discovered Cady's real identity, the one she has tried so hard to hide all these years, and he blackmails her into doing his bidding. This is the single wrong note in the story for me. When Dare threatens Cady, she keeps it to herself and never tells Lon. Lon already knows about her true identity, so why doesn't she tell him about the threats so that he can make Dare back off? The answer is, of course, that Bennett needs the blackmail threat as the centerpiece for the plot of book 3, but that reason is just not good enough. Earlier in the book, Cady made a big point of telling Lon that she wants the two of them always to be honest with one another. She tells him, "I don't want secrets between us....Not ones that matter, anyway. I keep secrets from everyone all day long. But not you. Okay?" (p. 112), And then, a few chapters later, she goes back on her word. This misstep just doesn't fit the character

     Great emphasis is placed on the relationship that is building between Cady and Jupe, Lon's 14-year-old son. He is quite a character with his geeky love of old horror movies, his boundless enthusiasm, and his developing knack for persuasion, which he uses for both bad and good purposes as the story plays out. Cady and Lon appear to have a solid, loving relationship by now as she spends most of her time at his home when she's not at her club, the Tambuku. Cady is still getting used to the new magical "moon" powers that she gained during the climax of the previous book. At this point, she can use them, but she doesn't have much control over them

     This is a solid addition to the series with an action-filled plot and fully realized characters. Although I don't like the way the author has set up the blackmail plot that will surely play out in book 3, I'm still interested in reading that book to see how Cady handles Dare. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Summoning the Night.  

            NOVELLA: "Leashing the Tempest"            
     The story is set on a charter boat off the central California coast. Lon and Cady have hired the boat so that they can provide a controlled environment in which Lon's son, Jupe, can practice his persuasion knack on Cady's partner, Kar Yee (who is teen-age Jupe's long-time crush). When Jupe accidentally incapacitates the boat's weirdo captain, the group is threatened both by stormy seas and a demonic creature who emerges from the water to threaten their lives.

     Once again, the author's skill at characterization shines through as we watch the interplay among Jupe, Lon, and Cady as they go from enthusiasm to dismay to shock when a seemingly safe and carefree excursion goes horrifyingly wrong. Although this novella doesn't play into the overriding story arc of the series, it does provide a great slice-of-life drama and a chance to enjoy Bennett's excellent story-telling skills. Click HERE to go to this novella's amazon.com page to read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

            NOVEL 3: Binding the Shadows            
     The book opens with a nail-biting scene in which Cady and Lon are trapped on an icy ledge by an Earthbound psycho who is trying to kill them. Since this is the first chapter, you know that they will escape, but it's a compelling way to kick off the plot. The action part of the story is relatively straightforward: Some Earthbounds are amping up their knacks and using their enhanced talents to pull off a string of robberies of local businesses, including Cady's bar, the Tambuku Tiki Lounge. When Cady and Lon investigate the robberies, they discover that the enhancement is caused by a magical potion that is being sold on the streets. The rest of the story follows their attempts to track down the distributor and take it off the market. Naturally, Ambrose Dare, the villainous president of the Hellfire Club, plays an important role in the plot, and particularly in the slam-bang climax. 

     The events taking place on the sidelines are even more enthralling than the action plot. It's late December, and Lon's ex-in-laws are making their annual Christmas visit. That would be Jupe's Grandmother Rose and Aunt Adella, mother and sister of Jupe's mother, Yvonne. For Cady, this visit is a big deal, because Lon and Jupe are the first real family she's ever had, and she's a bit nervous about meeting Yvonne's family. When Grandma takes an instant dislike to Cady, she is devastated. Then, the worst happens: Yvonne shows up, using her full allure powers in an attempt to get back in her family's good graces. As that story line plays out, the author allows us to look deep into the characters' souls as each one deals with Yvonne and her treacherous ways. Jupe's reactions are especially heart-breaking.

     As the story develops, Cady is forced to use her Moonchild powers several times and finds that they are quickly getting stronger. Unfortunately, they also cause her to have visions of her mother, who is supposed to have been killed in the demon realm. What's going on? Well, I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I can't give you any more details. I will tell you, though, that Caddy manages to summon Priya back from the dead—but in a completely new form and just in the nick of time.

     Lon and Cady's relationship moves a few steps ahead in this book as they grow even closer and begin to verbalize their feelings for one another. Bennett is so skilled at characterization that it's a joy to read these books. The characters—even the secondary ones—feel absolutely real, both in their behavior and in their dialogue—especially Jupe and Cady. Jupe is such a great character, with his realistic teen-age smart-ass charm and his over-the-top intelligence. It's tough to see him humiliated by his mother's antics.

     By the end of the story, Cady finally learns about her birthright—which is a good, but scary thing. Unfortunately, her powers are changing her into someone (or something) she doesn't want to be. Her strong and creepy new powers are hard to control, and she's afraid for the safety of her new family. The ending is such a slam-dunk of a cliffhanger that it will be agonizing to wait almost a year for the next book. I love this series! Click HERE to go to this book's amazon.com page to read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

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