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Friday, April 27, 2012


Author:  Debbie Viguié
Plot Type:  Police Procedural/Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence--4; Sensuality--2; Humor--1
Publisher and Titles:  Signet
          The Thirteenth Sacrifice (4/2012)
          The Last Grave (3/2013) 
    This post was updated on 3/28/13 to include a review of the second book in the series, The Last Grave. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1: 

            BOOK 2:  The Last Grave            
     The story begins three months after Samantha moves to San Francisco, where she is now working as a detective for the SFPD. In the opening scene, we get a snapshot of Samantha's new life as she has a demonic nightmare, is comforted by her roommate (Jill, a friend from her college years), and gets called to a homicide crime scene by her new partner, Lance Garris. The murder victim is Winona Lightfoot, a Native American historian whose body has been completely petrified. Samantha realizes immediately that a witch committed the murder, but she has to hide her suspicions from her human colleagues because she can't let them know anything about her witchy heritage. The rest of the story revolves around this murder.    

     The plot follows Samantha as she follows the clues and tries to solve the case. The most unbelievable part of the story is that Samantha spends most of the book roaming around the city, mountains, and forests all by herself, rarely accompanied by her partner. She keeps telling Lance that she's going off to follow up on something, and he keeps saying O.K.—not asking any questions about where she's going or what she's up to. This doesn't seem at all normal to me, particularly when Samantha's excursions rarely provide any information for the official police investigation. In fact, she usually gets into serious trouble—getting her car burned up by a lightning-throwing witch, being chased through a forest by that same witch, being attacked by trees—all of which she must lie about to her colleagues. I can't imagine that a police detective—particularly a newbie to the job—would be allowed to behave in such an independent, reckless, and non-productive manner.

     Samantha continues to try to avoid using her witchy powers, but eventually she has no choice. The crux of the story is based on a very familiar paranormal plot device: an attempt by the villain to awaken an ancient evil power. The villain's use of powerful dark magic forces Samantha to use her own magical talents to try to keep that ancient evil imprisoned. The ending is quite inventive, although it gets a bit woo-woo and hard to follow.

     In book 1 and throughout this story, Samantha has a series of dreamlike meetings with her younger selves. In book 1, she met with her younger selves at ages 5, 6, and 7. Now she meets her selves at ages 8-12, and they each unlock some long-repressed memories from her childhood. This is how it works: She dreams of a hallway lined with doors. Each time she opens a door, one of her former selves comes out and gives her advice about what to do next. After that, her memories of that year of her life return in a steady stream. This back-to-the-past gimmick worked (to a point) in the first book, but this time around it becomes rather awkward and unwieldy as a continuing plot device.

     This book is definitely not as strong as book 1. Samantha has turned into a weepy, wish-washy character who proceeds in an unplanned, impulsive manner and who has yet to face up to the fact that she has to stop pretending that she is not a witch. The resolution of the murder is somewhat confusing (I can't explain more without a spoiler), and that contributes to the weakness of the plot. I'll keep reading this series for now, though, in the hope that the next book will be stronger.

     In this world, the only supernatural beings (so far) are witches, some of whom have terrifying powers. The series heroine is Samantha Ryan (aka Samantha Castor), a powerful witch who comes from a long line of practitioners of black magic. When Samantha was still a child, her family and coven members were all slaughtered during a demon summoning that went horribly wrong. Samantha was the only survivor, and she has tried very hard to put her witchy past far behind her. Shortly after her family’s massacre, Samantha was adopted by a friendly, normal couple and raised to be a practicing Christian who finds comfort in the cross she wears around her neck at all times. As the series opens, Samantha's memories of her family’s tragedy are incomplete. She has frequent nightmares about that night and a few spotty memories surface from time to time.

            BOOK 1:  The Thirteenth Sacrifice           
     Set in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, the opening book introduces Samantha and her tragic past with the usual overload of expositional information. Samantha is now a Boston police detective and as the story begins, she and her partner, Ed Hofferman, are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman whose forehead sports a red pentagram, which turns out to have been traced with nail polish, not blood. As more pentagram-bearing bodies turn up, they trigger some of Samantha’s repressed memories, and she is sure that these crimes are somehow connected to witchcraft—specifically to the coven now practicing in Salem, her hometown and the site of the demonic massacre of her childhood.

     Samantha's boss asks her to go undercover in Salem. He wants her to join the coven and bring them down from within. Samantha is terrified at the prospect of opening up her mind and body to witchcraft after all these years. She’s afraid of its power and influence, and she wants only to be a “normal” person. Eventually, though, she gives in and heads for Salem, where she begins using her powers to attract the attention of the coven. The plot follows Samantha's adventures as she works her way into the coven and gains the confidence of its leader.

     Samantha's love interest in this book is Anthony Charles, who runs the Museum of the Occult in Salem and whose mother was killed in the same traumatic episode that claimed the lives of Samantha's family. In this book, their relationship is somewhat rocky (he tries to kill her at one point), but they become more friendly near the end, just before Samantha leaves for California. She is forced to leave her Boston PD job because now everyone knows that she is a witch and no one wants to work with her, not even her long-time partner.

     This is a solid enough story with an appropriately tortured heroine and a logical, police-procedural plot line with just the right amount of magical, witchy action. Once Samantha gets to Salem, she spends much of her time agonizing over the pull that dark magic has on her and praying that she can maintain her Christian principles when the investigation is completed. This is a common theme in urban fantasy: the heroine trying to balance black and white magic without being consumed by her own dark side. Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan in THE HOLLOWS and Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam in DOWNSIDE GHOSTS are prime examples of this. (Click on the series titles to read my reviews.) Both of those series are much stronger than this one, although isn’t a terrible series by any means. At this point, I’d say that it’s middle of the road average, with plenty of room for improvement. In the next book, Samantha moves to San Francisco, so we’ll see what the witch situation is out on the Left Coast.

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