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Thursday, February 14, 2013


Author:  Deborah Coates
Plot Type:  Rural Fantasy; Mystery with a Touch of Horror
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2-3; Humor1
Publisher and Titles:  Tor
          Wide Open (3/2012)
          Deep Down (3/2013)
          Strange Country (5/2014)  

     This post was revised and updated on 7/1/14 to include a review of Strange Country, the third 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:  Strange Country          
     The dark, magical ripples from the climactic events of book two have not allowed Hallie and Boyd to settle down into a peaceful life together. Hallie is still worried that Death will somehow force her to take his place in the Under (aka the Underworld), and she feels a tremendous amount of guilt about her inaction when Boyd went through a terrible experience in the Under. "What she wanted to say wasI'm sorry. I'm sorry I let you die. I'm sorry I made that choice. It colored everything, like she'd failed in some fundamental way she couldn't recover from and that, her failure…had made him unlucky in some way neither of them understood…That he didn't see it that way, that he probably would never see it, made it worse." (p. 57)      

     Boyd doesn't remember what happened to him, although Hallie has explained it to him, and he has forgiven her, but her access to dark magic still bothers him. Boyd is also worried about his prescient dreams, particularly when he dreams that Hallie has been murdered. To top off Boyd's problems, his sister-in-law, Beth Hannah, is still missing. Beth's story line plays out along the edges of the main plot.      

     Meanwhile, a serial killer has come to Taylor County, South Dakota, with a high-powered rifle. The first victim is Prue Stalking Horse, a woman with some kind of magical power that she always kept secret. Then, Hallie's friend, Laddie Kennedy, is shot just after he calls Hallie and sets up a meeting to give her some important information about Prue. The killer also takes shots at others, including Hallie and Boyd.      

     While Boyd is dealing with agents from the state department of investigation, Hallie gets some mysterious telephone calls and finds scrawled messages that have been left outside the iron hex ring that protects her property from supernatural danger. All of the messages make reference to fear and death: "What do you fear?" "Do you fear death?" "It is time to face your fear." The written messages contain a set of coordinates that are located in the middle of the Badlands. (Note, you can enter the coordinates at and see a map of that location.)       

     The story plays out as Hallie and Boyd work together and separately to figure out who is doing the killing and why. Playing an important role in Hallie's search is Maker, her Harbinger, who takes the shape of a black dog—a talking, teleporting dog visible only to Hallie. The most important clues are three granite stones found next to a skeleton half-buried in Prue's cellar. Soon, two more stones turn up. The stones show obvious signs of magic, but neither Hallie nor Boyd is sure of what their purpose is or how they tie in with the murders. Coates has constructed her mystery plot well, with a red herring or two thrown in with the real clues and suspects, although she telegraphs the identity of the murderer fairly early in the story—if, that is, you are paying close attention. Eventually, the story connects back to characters and events of earlier books, as Hallie summarizes here: "So, Prue Stalking Horse had a body and three stones in her cellar. An old farmhouse that was destroyed twenty years ago had a fourth stone buried in that cellar. And it just happens that the woman who used to live in that house practiced perversion magic and had a grandson who tried to use that same magic and blood sacrifice to control the world." (p 184) The story actually has two climactic scenes of resolution: one resolving Beth Hannah's story and one involving the showdown with the killer. The author handles the latter scene oddlyby including both a detailed set-up and aftermath, but describing the actual take-down after the fact, not in real time. For me, this caused a major bump in the flow of the big finale.      

     Although this plot is better constructed than the one in book two, it goes off the rails a few times when the woo-woo elements get out of control, making some scenes incomprehensible. One example is Hallie's journey to the mysterious coordinates (not a spoiler because you know from the beginning that her curiosity won't let her ignore them). What she finds there and what she actually does are never made entirely clear to the reader. For me, that was the most unsatisfying scene in the book. Although the plot packs in a lot of action, it drags in spots. In the two previous books, the stories were told from Hallie's point of view, but in this book, we also tune in to Boyd's thoughts. Unfortunately, both characters indulge in frequent angst-touched interior monologues that become somewhat repetitious. The two are interesting characters, mostly because they are complete opposites: Boyd being controlled, precise, and patient, and Hallie being impulsive, improvisational, and restless. It's almost a case of Apollonian vs. Dionysian, but together they make a great team.   

     One of Coates' strongest skills is her ability to create a sense of place. Her descriptions are masterful as she matches the action in the story to the open, wintry prairie using a full range of sensory description. In this scene, Boyd is on night patrol on a wintry March night: "He felt as if the wide-open prairie and the distant smattering of lights at scattered ranches and mobile homes and crossroads were a separate world, his world...A cold dry wind blew out of the northwest. A tumble-weed bounced onto the road, hit the side of the car with a hollow scratch, and was gone somewhere behind him…There was something ahead, a shadow in the twilight at the edge of his high beams. He slowed. Coyote…Light from the coyote's eyes reflected straight back at him, sharp and otherworldly. It trotted toward him along the road. When it dew parallel to the car, it turned its head and seemed to look directly at him before it angled across the old pavement and disappeared back into the night and the prairie…A vast nothingness surrounded him. Darkness and grass, wind and cold." (p. 13)

     Set in northwest South Dakota near Prairie City, this series follows the adventures of U.S. Army Sergeant Hallie Michaels, who has been able to see ghosts ever since she was injured in a roadside battle in Afghanistan and was pronounced dead for seven minutes. The series has no vampires or shape shifters, but it does have plenty of ghosts and dark magic.  

     Hallie's love interest, whom she meets in book 1, is Boyd Davies, deputy sheriff of Taylor County. He comes across as a straight-arrow Boy Scout, but he Hallie soon learns that Boyd has had his own share of contact with the magical world. 

     I can imagine that Hallie would get along quite well with Harper Connelly, heroine of Charlaine Harris' mystery series. Both are stubbornly independent women who follow ghostly clues to solve crimes. In Harper's case, the crimes are perpetrated by non-magical human villains, while in Hallie's case, supernatural powers are involved. Click HERE to read my review of the HARPER CONNELLY series.

          NOVEL 1:  Wide Open          

     As the story opens, Hallie has just traveled from Afghanistan to South Dakota to attend the funeral of her sister, Dell, who died when she drove her car head-on into a tree. As soon as Hallie walks into the Rapid City airport, she sees Dell's ghost. Hallie has been seeing ghosts for only three weeks, ever since she was pronounced dead for seven minutes back in Afghanistan. During the early chapters, she also has the ghost of a fellow soldier following her, but before very long she resolves that situation and sends him off to...wherever. The ghosts make her feel freezing cold every time they touch her, and she is having a tough time getting used to her new ghostly powers.

     Everyone, including the sheriff, assumes that Dell committed suicide, but Hallie refuses to believe that Dell would take her own life. Besides, she figures that Dell's ghost wouldn't be sticking around if Dell caused her own death. When the authorities won't discuss the case with her, she makes up her mind to investigate it on her own. Unfortunately, her leave from the army lasts only 10 days, so the pressure is on.

     As Dell searches for clues, Deputy Sheriff Boyd Davies keeps turning up, but he keeps refusing to help her with her investigation. In fact, he tries to discourage her from continuing with it. As the days pass, and Hallie's return to Afghanistan gets closer and closer, she begins to believe that Dell's death is somehow related to Uku-Weber, a new weather-related business that has sprouted up since she has been gone. 

     In the meantime, Taylor County has been having a series of freakish thunder storms, all of them brief and very localized, resulting in the burning of several buildings. Also, several young women have gone missing, and no one but Hallie sees their disappearances as being related to her sister's death.  Then, Hallie begins seeing a unique lightning-flash symbol in a variety of placeson her dead sister's neck, in a floor design at Uku-Weber headquarters, and on the belt buckle of Dell's former boyfriend (Pete), who is involved somehow with Uku-Weber. Obviously, this mysterious company and its seemingly beneficent owner, Martin Weber, are at the heart of the case, but at first Hallie can't to find any real proof of her suspicions. 

        As the plot plays out, Hallie attracts more and more ghostsall young womenand her friends and family are threatened with harm. After two buildings on her father's farm are mysteriously set afire, Pete and Martin confront Hallie, threatening more dire actions if she doesn't stop snooping into their affairs. It is obvious to Hallie that her investigation is making the Uku-Weber management very nervous, so she knows that she must be on the right track. Eventually Hallie and Boyd begin working together to fight against a dark magical power that is almost beyond their comprehension.

     None of the characters are fully developed, but that really doesn't matter much because this is a plot-driven story. Hallie just needs to be smart, courageous, and driven, and as we follow her through her investigation, we see that she has all of those traits. Boyd is harder to analyze because we see him only occasionally and don't get his full story until late in the book. The story is told in the third person from Hallie's point of view, and the narrator is reliable through most of the book until the final sequence of events, when Hallie's big plan is not revealed until she actually carries it through. Hallie and Boyd's relationship is roughly sketched and doesn't go further than a kiss, but as they begin to bond over this case, they also begin to care for one another.

     In many ways, this is a typical horror novel, with its sociopathic villains, continuous build-up of suspense, murderous events, and brave heroine who wins the day in the nick of time. But the magical elements take this into the paranormal fiction realm and put a twist to the usual horror plot.  I am looking forward to the sequel, which will take Hallie and Boyd on a new set of adventures.         

          NOVEL 2:  Deep Down          

     It's been two months since the villainous Martin Weber died, and for the first four lines of this book Hallie is hoping that her life is back to normal and free of magic. Then, just that quickly, a shadow passes over a pasture on her ranch, leaving a dark magical effect in its wake. Next, she visits her eccentric neighbor "Pabby" Pabahar only to find Pabby's house surrounded by black dogs who call themselves harbingers of death. Events only get more magically complicated as Hallie comes across a staged automobile accident in the middle of nowhere that is an exact replica of the one that killed Boyd's wife, Lily, seven years ago. (Note: Usually when there's a character named "Lily" in a paranormal novel, she's somehow related to the infamous Lilith, but that's not the case here.) At the accident scene, a mysterious man named Travis Hollowell appears out of thin air. It turns out that Hollowell wanted Lily to marry him (before she married Boyd) and finally killed Lily and himself in the auto accident. Now it appears that Hollowell isn't dead, but he isn't exactly "alive," either. He's a reaperone who appears at the moment of death, and now he's after Lily's sister, Beth.

     As the story plays out, Hallie drives back and forth across the range land, with Hollowell periodically popping up to threaten her and a black harbinger dog popping in and out of her truck to give her obscure clues about what's going on. Oh, and then there's Mr. Death himself, whose conversation is more unfathomable each time he shows himself to Hallie. Meanwhile, Boyd is off to Iowa to try to keep Beth from falling into Hollowell's grasp. By the time Boyd and Beth return to South Dakota, events have escalated to a hellish point, and I mean that in the most literal way.

     The first book in this series was a solidly constructed horror mystery with overtones of magic, but this book isn't nearly so well put together. This plot is shapeless and full of so much incomprehensible woo-woo that it's hard to care about what will happen next. Hallie never really gets a handle on what's going on until the very end of the book, and the ongoing clues from Death and the dog are so cryptic that I gave up trying to figure them out. The relationship between Hallie and Boyd takes a few steps forward into intimacy, but since they are rarely in a scene together, it's hard to figure out how they've actually gotten their romance going at all. 

     Because of the repetitive twists and turns in the story line, the author relies on the trope of having Hallie pause from time to time to mentally tick off all of the relevant events so that she (and we) can keep track of what's going on. Here's one of those moments late in the story as Hallie tells Boyd, "'Here's what I know.' She ticked things off on her fingers. 'I know Travis Hollowell is a reaper. I know what a reaper does. I know that the walls between living and dying have gotten thin. They're getting thinner all the time. I know the hex ring keeps them out and that iron or the combination of steel, blood, and sacrament can hurt them. That's what I know." (p. 196) Boyd's response is "That's not enough It doesn't solve anything." And he's right about that. (By the way, Hallie's tick-off list is not a spoiler; all of that info is revealed very early in the story.)

     In conclusion, I'll just say that this book didn't work for me. The plot is murky and nebulous, with the main characters just stumbling around getting beaten up until they finally are literally pushed/pulled into the final climactic scene that resolves most of the issues. The novel's main strength is in the character of Hallie, who is trying to deal with the magical consequences of dying and coming back to life back in Afghanistan. That death experience has made her open to all kinds of magicmost of it very darkand she is living on the edge between reality and...something elsea very uncomfortable place to be. The author gets Hallie's blunt, sometimes sarcastic dialogue just right. If this plot had been better defined, this could have been a much better book. 

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