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Friday, November 9, 2012

Jacqueline Carey's AGENT OF HEL TRILOGY

Author:  Jacqueline Carey  
Series:  AGENT OF HEL TRILOGY  
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)  
Ratings:  Violence-4; Sensuality-2-4; Humor-3
Publisher and Titles:  Roc
          Dark Currents (10/2012)
          Autumn Bones (10/2013) 
          Poison Fruit (10/2014) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 11/7/14 to include a review of Poison Fruit, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.

         NOVEL 3:  Poison Fruit            
     The final novel in this trilogy is really two big stories for the price of one. In total, there are three primary plot lines: the resolution of the heroine's love life (now whittled down from a quadrangle to a triangle), a series of assaults by a supernatural monster who uses its victims' nightmares to paralyze them with fear, and a major disaster involving high-level deities and the hell-spawn lawyer who turned up in Autumn Bones.

     First, let's get Daisy's love life out of the way (although every reader of the series should have been able to predict from the beginning of the series who will win her heart). Now that Daisy has broken up with Sinclair, she has hopes that Cody Fairfax (her werewolf PPD partner) will follow through romantically after their spectacular consummation scene in Autumn Bones. Unfortunately, even though Cody is in love with Daisy, he believes that he must stay true to his werewolf genes by mating with another werewolf in order to produce more werewolves. That leaves Stefan Ludovic, an Outcast (aka ghoul) who feeds on negative human emotions. Daisy describes her relationship with Stefan as a "fraught pas de deux: "infuriatingly cryptic, disturbingly intimate, distinctly apprehension-making, yet definitely intriguing." (pp. 279 and 165) Although Daisy has a strong physical attraction to Stefan (and vice versa), there is always the possibility that while in the throes of passion, he will lose control and drain her drywhich means certain death. What's a girl to do?  

A Night Hag in Action
     The first half of the book follows Daisy and Cody as they work on a case involving a Night Hag, a monstrously ugly old woman who appears out of nowhere to sit upon her victim's chest while he or she is engulfed by a nightmare. Only the victim can see the Hag. The Hag paralyzes the victim by drawing its life energy. In order to catch the Hag, Daisy must use herself as bait by forcing herself to have a nightmare about her worst fear. (And if you can't guess what that is before it is revealed, you haven't been reading the series very carefully.)

     Before the sturm und drang of the final half of the book, there is a brief but heartbreaking scene in which Stefan asks a huge favor of Daisy that causes her to contemplate her spiritual beliefs and accept the responsibilities that come with her power as the holder of Dauda-dagr (the dagger of death given to her by the goddess Hel). Although this is a dark and serious scene, a bit of levity peeks through when Daisy quotes a Spider-Man line ("With great power comes great responsibility") only to have Stefan inform her that the quote comes originally from Voltaire (French historian and philosopher, 1694-1778)and Daisy has absolutely no idea who Voltaire is. (By the way, I did an Internet search for this quotation just to see what I would find. Unfortunately, the majority of Spider-Man fan sites attribute the quotation to Stan Leewith nary a mention of poor Voltairea very sad commentary on the intellectual level of the 18-44 demographic. The general meaning of the quotation can also be traced even further backto the Bible: Luke 12:48.)

     The second half of the book focuses on the devious antics of Daniel Dufreyne, a hell-spawn lawyer who has embraced his demon heritage and now has the gift of persuasion. Dufreyne is buying up huge plots of land around Pemkowet, and when Daisy sees a map of his land purchases she realizes that they are all on the edge of Hel's territory. Then, Dufreyne sues the town of Pemkowet, which owns the actual land under which Hel's demesne (Little Niflheim) lies. He is acting for a mysterious corporation called Elysian Fields, but no one can discover who owns that company. As Hel's liaison on Earth, Daisy takes the lead in fighting the lawsuit and saving Pemkowet, but as the situation begins to fall apart around her, she must also face her greatest fearnot in a nightmare this time, but in real life.

     This is an action-filled, suspenseful book that satisfactorily ties up all the loose ends and resolves all the mysteries that have been set forth. The resolution to the Dufreyne-related mystery is particularly dramatic, as Daisy takes the Norns' advice and follows her heart, hoping that she isn't about to cause the apocalypse. I highly recommend this book and this series. The main characters are well developed; the secondary characters are interestingly quirky; the action moves along at a fast pace; and the finale has enough suspense and drama to have you holding your breath. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Poison Fruit.  

         WORLD-BUILDING           
The goddess, Hel
     Set in the Michigan resort town of Pemkowet, this world includes a human population that is aware of, but doesn't completely believe in, a supernatural society that includes fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres, and a lot moreall of whom are called eldritch folk, or the  "underworld community." These communities are located in various places in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the world, and each one is headed by its own god or goddess. In Pemkowet, that goddess is Hel, the Norse goddess of the dead. Pemkowet is located in the sand dune area near the shores of Lake Michigan (Manistee County). Hel lives in a demesne called Little Niflheim, which is located deep underground in the ruins of Singaporean actual 19th century lumber town that was built on, and then swallowed up by, the dunes.

     Hel's liaison between the human citizenry and the eldritch community is Daisy Johanssen (aka Daisy Jo, aka Daise, aka Pixy Stix), a young woman who works as a file clerk for the Pemkowet Police Department. When Hel assigned Daisy as her liaison, she placed a silvery rune on Daisy's palm that can be seen only by the eldritch community and which represents Hel's authoritylike a police officer's badge. Daisy is half human and half demon. Here, she explains: "For the record, I'm not actually the spawn of Satan. My father's name is Belphegor, lesser demon and occasional incubus. Here's another piece of advice: If you're vacationing in Pemkowet, or anywhere on the planet with a functioning underworld, do not mess around with a ouija board. The spirit you summon might just pay a visit. Mom learned the hard way, and I'm living proof of that. Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn, that's me." (Dark Currents, p. 10) Here, she describes herself: "No horns, no bat wings, no cloven hooves, and Mom swears I don't have a birthmark that reads 666 on my scalp...But I have my father's eyes, which are as black as the pits of...well, you know. And a cute little tail, which I've learned to tuck as carefully as a drag queen tucks his package, only back to front." (p. 10) That tail has made Daisy self-conscious enough that she's hasn't gotten involved in any intimate relationships. Despite the fact that the circumstances of her conception were devilishly violent, Daisy has been reared by her mother, Marja, in a loving household, and they are very important to one another. Unlike most of the supernaturals in town, Daisy and her demonic heritage have always been well known to almost everyone, resulting in a hellish childhood filled with Satanic name-calling and bullying.   

     In this world, the barrier between the mortal plane and the supernatural dimension is called the Inviolate Wall. In eldritch terminology, that Wall "is what divides the mortal plane from the divine forces of the apex faiths, the major living faiths: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. In theory, it means that the divine forces of the major living faiths can't act directly on the mortal plan, only indirectly through their millions of adherents. But in places like Pemkowet, the wall is thinner, not so inviolate. There are cracks, and things slip through them. Kind of like my father slipped into my mother." (Dark Currents, p. 34) Daisy has a critical connection to the Inviolate Wall. "If I were to supplicate my father...for my demonic birthright, it could cause a full-blown breach and unleash...well, hell on earth....If an immortal deliberately caused my death, it could also bring on Armageddon, because in accordance with ancient laws, my father would have the right to seek vengeance on earth, thus creating a significant breach in the Inviolate Wall." (Dark Currents, p. 34) Daisy has a tough time controlling her temper, and she is constantly tempted to claim her birthright by just letting that temper go. Daisy's father occasionally shows up as a voice in her head, tempting her with "great powers of temptation, seduction, and destruction," (p. 59)  with men falling at her feet in adoration. So far, she's been able to hold him—and her temper—off.

     Daisy's long-time BFF, Jennifer (Jen) Cassopolis, is really her only friend and confidante, and she knows all the details of Daisy's heritage. Another friendly character from Daisy's childhood is the beautiful and glamorous Lurine Hollister, a lamia who grew up in Pemkowet and lived in the same trailer court as Daisy and her mother, where she became Daisy's part-time baby sitter and confidante. Lurine eventually became a B-movie star and married a rich man who subsequently died, after which she moved back to Pemkowet, bought a mansion, and now lives a relatively reclusive life.

     Daisy's long-time, unrequited love interest—actually, a childhood crush—is Cody Fairfax, an in-the-closet werewolf who is a Pemkowet police officer. Daisy nicknames Cody "Officer Down-low" and contents herself with worshipping him from afar.

Marsh Hag
     Among the huge cast of supernaturals are such colorful characters as Gus, the friendly and protective ogre, who has a crush on Daisy's mother; Mikill the frost giant, who is Hel's messenger; Garm the hellhound, who chows down on fresh loaves of French bread; Mrs. Brown, the friendly brownie baker (Not only does she bake brownies, she actually is a brownie.); the Fabulous Casimer, a flamboyant, cross-dressing witch; and Meg Mucklebones, a green and slimy marsh hag.

     This mythology has a very different take on ghouls, who are usually portrayed as flesh-eating evil spirits who haunt graveyards. In this world, though, ghouls are called the Outcast. The Outcast maintain their corporeal, mortal forms and live on negative human emotions. "A human soul becomes Outcast by dying in a state of commingled sin and faith and transcendently powerful emotion, which creates some sort of theological loophole that thrusts them back into their bodies in the mortal plane…over and over and over again." (Poison Fruit, p. 12) For example, one character became Outcast when he volunteered for a task that would save another man, but which he knew would result in his own death. Therefore, he was rejected by heaven for essentially committing suicide (a sin), and he was rejected by hell because he sacrificed his life for another (a virtuous deed). In general, the Outcast are immortal because even if one of the Outcast dies from a mortal injury or succumbs to a terminal illness, he or she is once again rejected by both heaven and hell and instantly returns to life. The only way an Outcast can achieve true death is to be starved of human emotions for a very long and agonizing period, or when Daisy stabs him or her with Hel's magic dagger (Dauda-dagr). If the Outcast let their appetites get out of control (this is called ravening), they can kill a person, leaving only a dry husk behind.

     The tourist business is extremely important in Pemkowet as summer visitors flock into town looking for photo ops with supernaturals. Excitement peaks when naiads are sighted in the river and fairies are glimpsed in the woods. Naturally enough, the Pemkowet Visitors Bureau (PVB) tries to maintain a peaceful coexistence between the humans and the supernaturals. The citizens of near-by towns, however, are not so friendly towards supernaturals, viewing them as satanic abominations or worse.

MORE WORKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Carey has written two historical fantasy series: KUSHIEL'S LEGACY and THE SUNDERING. She has also written the dystopian fantasy duology, SANTA OLIVIA. Click HERE to read my review of SANTA OLIVIA.

         NOVEL 1:  Dark Currents         
     As the first book opens, Pemkowet's citizens and tourists are enjoying a peaceful summer evening until the body of a male college student is found drowned in the river, with evidence pointing towards eldritch involvement. The police chief assigns Cody and Daisy to investigate in the usual police procedural manner, and the clues lead them to the local ghoul community, which is led by a new guy in town: Stefan Ludovic, a tall, dark, and pale-but-sexy biker-type guy to whom Daisy is immediately attracted, and vice versa. In this world, ghouls were formerly humans who died at the height of passion and were then rejected by both Heaven and Hell. They are immortal beings who survive by drinking the emotions of others. 

     Early on, Daisy's mother does a card-reading for Cody and Daisy, and the clues in her cards begin to play out in a literal manner: a bottle, a spider, a mysterious woman, and some arrows. This case is the most important and dangerous of any case to which Daisy has been assigned, so Hel gives her a magical dagger called the Dauda-dagr, which means "death day," which will allow her to kill immortalsand that includes ghouls.

     As the story proceeds, Daisy finds herself attracted to three very different men: Cody the werewolf, Stefan the ghoul, and Sinclair Palmer, a faux-Jamaican tourism entrepreneurthe only human of the three (although Sinclair can see auras). Each one offers his own unique characteristic to Daisy. Cody is her long-time crush, and they share nostalgic childhood experiences. Plus, he makes her feel safe and protected. Stefan has the ability to help Cody manage her anger (and other strong emotions) by drinking them away. He makes her feel calm. Sinclair's humanness makes Daisy feel like a normal person, and as a bonus, he shares her love of old movies. None of these relationships moves toward any kind of commitment or culmination in this book, but they're all open to further development.  

     This is a terrific start to a series that I'm really looking forward to reading. The mythology is fresh and inventive, the plot is suspenseful and relatively unpredictable, and the action just keeps on coming. The quirky characters add interest and depth to the story. Daisy makes a fine heroine, with her intelligence, feistiness, and adaptability to any situation (although her tail-wagging gets to be a bit much). The author is a good story teller who has full control over the first-person voice through which Daisy tells her story. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Dark Currents

         NOVEL 2:  Autumn Bones         
     The plot of this novel centers around Daisy's boyfriend, Sinclair Palmer and his family. Daisy and Sinclair have been dating for only a few weeks, and she's very happy to find herself in a relationship with a "normal" human. Unfortunately for Daisyand for the citizens of PemkowetSinclair and his family are definitely not normal humans. They are, in fact, obeahpowerful sorcerers. When Sinclair's twin sister, Emmeline, shows up Pemkowet to convince her brother to go back to Jamaica with her, she views Daisy as an enemy and puts a painful spell on her. Then she threatens to harm both Daisy and the town if Sinclair doesn't come home. As Hel's agent, Daisy banishes Emmeline from the town, but Emmeline promises to be back in a month to get Sinclairor else she will set a duppy (a malevolent spirit) on Sinclair and flood Pemkowet with a malevolent rising of the undead. If Daisy can't solve this problem by midnight on Halloween, the veil will remain permanently open and the town will have a major undead problem. 

     This story is mostly about Daisy's romantic life. She consummates (with no graphic descriptions) two of her relationships and takes a few steps (passionate kisses) toward doing the same with a third. Her three romantic heroes are all handsome, sexy, good guys, so who will she eventually choose: Sinclair, the Jamaican obeah who was not honest with Daisy about his family and their powers; Colby Fairfax, her werewolf partner, who is wildly attracted to Daisy but is clear with her that they can never be together permanently because she isn't a werewolf; or Stefan Ludovic, a ghoul (aka Outcast), who lives on the emotions of others, always on the verge of raveningkilling people by drinking them dry? Stefan, by the way, is the 600-year-old son of a Bohemian count, so Daisy sometimes feels inadequate being just a small-town girl who has never been out of Pemkowet. As Daisy muses at one point: "Stefan was one of the Outcast, banned from heaven and hell, and I was a demon's daughter. As my old teacher Mr. Leary might say, that made for a heck of a potent eschatological cocktail. Eschatologylook it up. I did." (p. 423) So...each relationship has a major problem area. Daisy interacts romantically with all three in this story, and by the end, the choice is down to two. 

     The action part of the plot revolves around Daisy's attempts to save her town from the undead invasion with the assistance of her three boyfriends, the eldritch community, and the local coven. The story ends with the zombie problem solved, but with one story thread still without resolution. That one involves Daniel Dufreyne, a hell-spawn attorney who is buying up land in and around Pemkowet and using compulsion spells to talk unwilling owners into selling. Hel has assigned Daisy to find out what's going on, but in this book, she is too involved with the more immediate undead problem to get around to the lawyer. That will have to wait until book 3. For background on Hel and other aspects of the series mythology, read the World-Building section of this post. Another unresolved issue arises when one of the Norns (aka the Fates) warns Daisy that at some future point in time, "the fate of the world may hinge on the choices you make." (p. 418) (No pressure, Daisy!)

     One seemingly minor story thread involves Daisy's friend, Jen, and her vampire-loving sister, Bethany. Keep an eye on that one because it has a major pay-off in the final climactic showdown scene that resolves most of the conflict. 

    Carey is a skilled writer wholuckily for the readerhandles Daisy's first-person voice exceptionally well. Daisy is a brave and likable heroine who muddles through her daily life just like the rest of us (except that she is a hell spawn with a tail and we aren't). By the way, for all fans of Daisy's tail: We get much more information about its appearance and its sensitivity. Her three men are all divinely handsome and sexy, but they all have very different personalities and backgrounds. The plot of this book is full of emotion and action, but not much suspense. We know that Daisy will somehow save her town; the only mystery is how she will do it.  

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