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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Phillipa Bornikova: LINNET ELLERY SERIES

Author:  Phillipa Bornikova  (aka Melinda Snodgrass)
Plot Type:   Paranormal Legal Thriller with a Romantic Touch
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality4; Humor3  
Publisher and Titles:  Tor
          This Case Is Gonna Kill Me (9/2012)
          Box Office Poison (8/2013)

      Imagine a John Grisham legal thriller set in a supernatural mythology. In this fresh and inventive world, the Powers (vampires, werewolves, and Álfarelves) came out to humans back in the 1960s. While vamps and werewolves are former humans who have been Turned, Álfar are a different species altogether, with a homeland on another plane. "Fey was sort of overlaid on top or maybe beneath our world. Geography was the same, but somehow buildings changed or vanished. Álfar vehicles both motorized and horse-drawn didn't intersect with our vehicles, and humans and Álfar in the same building didn't see each other." (Box Office Poison, p. 140), Over the centuries, the wealthy Powers developed influential behind-the-scenes positions in human society, and now they hold those positions publicly. The werewolves are big in business and technology; the vampires run major law firms and other justice system positions; and the Álfar are major players in show business. 

     Naturally enough, some humans aren't happy about living among supernaturals, so there is the usual resistance in the form of a group called Human Firsta self-explanatory organizational name that has been used in variation by other authors in other series. That organization is part of the plot for the second book. Because of this human opposition, "the Powers tended to congregate in major metropolitan areasNew York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, London, Paris. People in urban areas were generally more accepting of different lifestyles. But until the Powers started living in [small towns], they were never going to be fully accepted. They are going to continue to be a source of titillation and dread...." (This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, p. 70)

     The vampires in this world are immortal (unless they are decapitated or burned), but not self-healing. They all bear scars from their centuries of violent life. All of these vamps are males. Female vampires are nonexistent; they are anathema. If a vamp Makes a female vamp, both are immediately killed. In the first two books, this peculiarity is not explained, but it is certainly discussed. One character explains, "The official party line for both the vampires and the werewolves is chivalry, but I think it's more about self-preservation, and not upsetting the peasants by going after their womenfolk. If you start threatening wives and daughters, you're going to end up with an angry mob outside your house waving torches and pitchforks." (This Case..., p. 138)

     One other type of supernatural creature that is mentioned in passing is the Hunter, a less-than-human creature that is apparently used as a mercenary by the vampires. We don't see any Hunters in action in the first two books, but here is a description of one from a TV movie that is described in book 1: "On the screen a Hunter shambled after a teen couple. Its face was a pale oval, and its only definable feature was a strange, red mouth. How it breathed or saw was a mystery. The worm-like digits that passed for fingers stiffened into claws and thrust into the boy's chest." (This Case..., p. 146) The vampires created the loathsome Hunters, "who were the source of all of the walking-dead legends that permeated human cultures. Only vampires with their mesmerizing powers could fully control Hunters, and a special class of vampire enforcers handled the creatures." (This Case..., p. 146)

     The author has a background in both the legal system (as an attorney) and in show business (as a writer and editor), and she includes many realistic details of both career fields in the stories. She is also a horse trainer, and the details of this career spill over into the life of the series heroine, Linnet Ellery. Linnet is a human woman, a brand-new attorney who is hired by a White-Fang law firm called Ishmael, McGillary & Gold. (In an on-line interview, the author explains that "there's a tradition in the law to call very prestigious law firms 'White Shoe' firms. It just worked so perfectly for a vampire law firm to be a 'White Fang' firm."Although Linnet is a human, not a werewolf, she reminds me of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville in that she doesn't have super strength or mad fighting skills so she uses her intellect (and in Linnet's case, her legal skills) to get herself out of tough situations. 

     Linnet is the daughter of a relatively wealthy family who fostered her out to a vampire household when she was a child, a common occurrence in this world. The vampires want humans to believe that they are harmless and family oriented, and the humans who turn their children over to the vamps want to share the vamps' power, influence, and money. Luckily for Linnet, her foster vamp father, Meredith Bainbridge, is a kind and generous man who provided her with everything she ever wanted, including her own horses and equestrian training at the Olympic level. Linnet is actually closer to her vampire family than to her human family, and her cushy background definitely colors her worldview. She is not a simple girl from the suburbs; she is well-bred, well-traveled, well-heeled, and well-educated (Radcliffe and Yale). Linnet's most striking characteristic is her deep-down belief in the justice system. She searches for the truth in every situation, no matter how much trouble it causes (and, believe me, it causes a LOT of trouble)

     This is not one of those stereotypical urban fantasies that features a trash-talking, black-leather-corseted heroine pulling weapons out of her hair and her boots. The only boots Linnet wears are thousand-dollar, custom-made riding boots, with nary a knife in sight. Linnet is a well-bred city girl who dresses expensively and conservatively and relies on her brains to get her through even the most dangerous situations.  The supernaturals of this series are mostly old-school gentlemen who open doors for women and speak softly, but always hold that proverbial big stick, in this case, a metaphorical Powers stick. This is a refreshingly smart series with compelling story lines, well-constructed plots, and interesting characters.

            BOOK 1:  This Case Is Gonna Kill Me            

     As the story opens, Linnet is just starting her job at Ishmael, McGillary & Gold, and she is discovering that the other young lawyers resent the fact that she got her job through her family connections. As Linnet explains, "My family's been pretty closely allied with the Powers since 1963. My grandfather was a lawyer, and he helped with the integration after the Powers came out." (p. 8) She also has an ancestorWilliam Ellerywho was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

     Linnet's first assignment is to assist another lawyer (Chip Westin) on a decades-long case (the one mentioned in the book's title) involving a disputed will left by Henry Abercrombie, a millionaire werewolf. That will involves Securitech, a multi-million-dollar security firm that is being run by Daniel Deegan, a werewolf sired by Abercrombie specifically to be his second inn command. When Abercrombie was Turned, he left behind his human wife and children, but now that he is dead, they want all of his money as well as the business. Linnet's law firm is representing the human family, and it's up to Linnet to help Chip finally bring the case to a successful close. 

     Very early in the story, a rogue werewolf breaks into the law offices one night when Linnet and Chip are working alone. The wolf kills Chip and attacks Linnet, but she miraculously gets away with only a few scratches, while the wolf winds up as a splatter at the bottom of an elevator shaft. This is the firstbut definitely not the lasttime that we watch Linnet escape safely from a dangerous episode, and we soon sense that there is some (possibly magic) reason for that, although this is only hinted at, but not explored in the first two books.

     After Chip's death, Linnet takes over the Securitech case and begins her own investigation with the assistance of John O'Shea, a private investigator the firm hires as a free-lance consultant. John is an Álfar, a handsome, sexy man to whom Linnet is immediately attracted. The two of them follow some leads that take them into some dangerous situations, particularly for John. Again, though, Linnet always makes it out safe and sound.
     The author does a good job laying out the details of Linnet's nuanced relationships with her new colleagues at the law firm. Those supporting characters are exceptionally well-developed as they play out their roles within the cultural complexities that make up every office, but which are exaggerated in this vampire-run law firm. One interesting story thread deals with the fact that the smart and savvy human female lawyers are on a no-win career path. They can never become partners because the partners are all vampires, and in this world there are no female vampires. Linnet's personal history and the background information on the Powers are insinuated into the story gracefully, with no awkward info dumps. Linnet is a likable character who consistently uses her brain power to get her out of trouble. Click HERE to read an excerpt from This Case Is Gonna Kill Me.

            BOOK 2:  Box Office Poison            

     The book opens several months after the close of book 1. Although Linnet has tried to find a way to rescue her lover, John O'Shea, from his imprisonment in Fey (the Álfar homeland located on a plane parallel to Earth), she has so far been unsuccessful. Linnet does get a chance to see and speak with John in this book, but with emotionally disastrous results. She is now in Los Angeles with vampire attorney David Sullivan to arbitrate a case involving involving Álfar and human actors in Hollywood movies. To review Linnet's complicated relationship with David: David initially treated Linnet badly (in book 1), but saved her life in the final climactic moments when the werewolf Deegan attacked her. Now their relationship has developed into a sibling-type snarkiness that covers a developing friendship (and perhaps, more on David's part). 

     Here's the legal situation: Human actors have filed a discrimination case against the studios because Álfar actors are getting a much higher percentage of acting jobs than human actors. The humans claim that the Álfar are using their powers at their auditions to sway the human casting directors. The Álfar deny that they have any magical powers. It's up to David and Linnet to hear all sides of the case (humans, Álfar, and studios) and hand down a final verdict that all parties will accept. Otherwise, the case will go to court, and that will create an explosion of negative publicity that everyone wants to avoid.

     The plot follows the trajectory of the hearings, as David and Linnet accumulate more and more facts and try to come up with a plan that will satisfy everyone. Meanwhile, several Álfar actors go berserk at various venues, murdering family and other innocents. (In the aftermath of one of the murders, the suspect does a low-speed freeway chase that mimics the one that O.J. did back in 1994.) The Human First organization joins the fray, ramping up their protests and their propaganda to a fever pitch. As she did in book 1, Linnet begins her own investigation, this time with the assistance of two human brothers, one a legal research expert and the other an investigative journalist. As she gets closer to the truth, Linnet is thrust into some dangerous situations, but her luck continues to hold as she always escapes with her life. At the end of this book, she begins to figure out that her escapes are not based on luckbut on something else. The explanation of that "something else," though, is saved for another book.

     Once again, the author plots out a compelling story and allows her main characters to develop in realistic ways. The single problem I had was that I knew exactly who the villain was as soon as he/she (no spoiler here) appeared in the story. I looked back to see if I might have been responding to inadvertent hints in the text, but couldn't find any, so maybe I just made a lucky guess. In any case, it didn't spoil the story for me. The book ends with a soft cliff hanger as Linnet discovers that one of her friends has some magical secrets. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Box Office Poison.

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