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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stephen Blackmoore: CITY OF THE LOST SERIES

Author:   Stephen Blackmoore     
Series Title:  CITY OF THE LOST
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy/Horror
Publisher:  Daw
          City of the Lost (1/2012)
          Dead Things (2/2013)
          Broken Souls (8/2014)  

     This post was revised and updated on 8/10/14 to include a review of Broken Souls, 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:  Broken Souls            
     As the story opens, Eric is dealing with the fact that the Aztec death goddess, Santa Muerte, has bonded him to her by putting a wedding band on his ring finger—an unremovable gold ring that "changes from time to time. A simple gold band sometimes, tiny calaveras carved into its surface others. Tonight it's solid green jade…" (p. 9). Eric has been trying to get mage assistance with removing the ring and breaking the bond, but no one will help him. His reputation in Los Angeles is so bad that people tend to stay away from him. At one point, a reluctant ally tells him, "I've got enough trouble without you showing up again….Something tells me you're better at breaking things apart than you are at putting them back together again." (p. 250)

     Finally, one mageHarvey Kettlemanagrees to meet him in the middle of the night at Griffith Observatory, but when Eric gets there, two strange things happen. First, he hears the voice of his dead friend, Alex, warning him of danger—just a disembodied voice in his head, no ghostly body or solid shape. Then, Kettleman attacks him with an ancient obsidian knife. As Eric desperately fights back, Kettleman inexplicably changes his shape, suddenly becoming a tall, blond, former L.A. mob enforcer named Sergei Gusarov. As it turns out, this violent, human thug can use the magic obsidian knife to steal the form, powers, and memories of each of his victims by killing them and wearing their skins like a suit. Although Eric wins the fight, he’s pretty sure that the Russian isn’t done with him.

     This incident sets up the plot, as Eric tries to figure out what the Russian is  up to and who—or what—the “Alex voice” is. That second question becomes even more difficult to answer when Alex begins showing up in his solid physical form, claiming to have information that will help Eric. Eric's situation gets even more complicated when Sergei's sister, Katya, follows Eric into a train car and kills everyone inside in an attempt to get at Eric. The action moves back and forth across the city as Eric has several ambiguous meetings with Santa Muerte, enlists assistance from his old friend Tabitha Cheung, and seeks information from the Santa Ana wind spirits. He also teams up Gabriela, the young bruja from City of the Lost, who commands a crew of human and vampire thugs and who has also been attacked by the Sergei and his sister.

     After all is said and done, Eric kicks back in his hotel room to watch the news, only to discover that the day's most traumatic eventsan earthquake, an explosion, and a wind-related brushfirecan all be traced back to him. He muses, "It's a weird feeling, being responsible for so much of the news." (p. 252)

     In the end, Eric resolves his problem with the Russians in a scene that uses a plot device that is basically an all-too-quick-and-neat deus ex machina. He also learns who Alex really is, a major surprise that doesn’t feel as authentic as the rest of the story. This new plot twist brings in Aztec religious mythology and moves us away from the drama on the city streets that has made the rest of the series so darkly realistic. What Blackmoore has done is up the ante on the "fantasy" part of “urban fantasy” and downplay the “urban” part, a move that doesn’t work very well as far as I’m concerned. Part of the problem is that we can’t trust the conflicting stories that Santa Muerte and her long-dead lover spin out to Eric, each hoping for his support. 

     The book ends with the Santa Muerte issue unresolved and with Eric still alone, with only the obsidian knife to keep him company. Even Gabriela bails on him. When Eric tells her, "I'm doing just fine," this is her response: "Really? Bouncing from hotel to hotel, stealing cars, ex-girlfriend wants to kill you…Last I heard your best friend had his soul eaten and you had to shoot him in the head. Yeah, you're doing great on the friend front." (p. 162)

     This is the weakest of the three books, mostly because of the lack of character development that was such a strong point in the earlier novels. The Russian story line turned into a series of too-similar mini-battles, except for the explosive climax, which felt rushed and overly fantastical. Vivian makes only a brief appearance with no real interaction with Eric, and Tabitha…well Tabitha turns out to be anything but what she appears to be. The next novel promises to be even more fantasy-oriented than this one, with Eric going after two gods as he fulfills his promise to the Santa Ana wind spirits and tries to break his bond with Santa Muerte once and for all. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Broken Souls.  

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     This is a terrific urban fantasy/horror series set on the dark and dangerous streets of an alternate Los Angeles. In this grim and gritty world, mages, spirits, gods, and voodoo loas intermingle with the unknowing human populace.

     In the first novel, the hero—or anti-hero—is Joe Sunday, and he’s definitely not a nice guy. Joe is a mob enforcer—a cold-blooded killer who has done horrible things to both men and women: breaking legs and fingers, shooting out kneecaps, and even setting a man on fire. Early in book 1, Joe gets turned into a zombie, and his life changes forever.   Here, Joe goes on to explain how he feels about his new existence: “There’s that empty feeling, like I’ve been ripped open and hollowed out. I’m Pinocchio in reverse. The real boy turned into a wooden puppet.” (City of the Lost, p. 35)

     The hero of the second and third novels is Eric Carter, a necromancer who attracts ghosts: "Ghosts come to me like moths to a flame. I can see them and they can see me. They hover like groupies....If I really wanted to get rid of the ghosts I'd nail a dead cat to the windows, but that's always struck me as a bit extreme." (Dead Things, p. 12) Eric calls up various ghosts—including eye witnesses and even murder victims—to ask them pertinent questions about the crimes he investigates. In this world, ghosts who are earth-bound have died a traumatic death. Some are Wanderers, who can move from place to place, and some are Haunts, who are tethered to their place of death. Then there are the Echoes, constantly reliving the final moments of their lives, but all of these ghosts have one thing in common: They are hungry for the life-force of humans. Eric has spent much of his life avoiding ghostly attacks while bringing justice to the dead: "When they're dead and there's no one to speak for them, no one to collect on the debt their killers owe: that's where I come in. The Dead have already paid for their sins. The living, not so much." (Dead Things, p. 211) 

     Eric carries much of his magic in the form of full-body tattoos: "I'm tattooed over most of my body. Neck to wrists to ankles. Wards and sigils. Symbols in dead languages to help ward off threat, divert attention, help me focus my magic." (Dead Things, p. 13) 

     Eric fled from L.A. fifteen years ago after killing Jean Boudreau, the powerful mage mob boss who sent a fire elemental to murder his parents. After Eric got his revenge on Boudreau, the mage mob gave him a simple choice: either leave L.A. for good, or be responsible for the deaths of himself and his sister, Lucy. Eric chose to leave his sister behind (in promised safety) and to make a new life for himself—far away from L.A. Since then, he has developed stronger and stronger magical powers and has become an assassin for hire in the supernatural world. Even though he limits his killing to bad humans and evil supernaturals, his death-filled life has taken a toll on his soul.

            NOVEL 1:  City of the Lost             
    When Joe Sunday’s boss, Simon, sends him to retrieve a valuable gemstone from a former associate, Joe views it as an easy assignment. What he doesn’t realize is that Sandro Giavetti is not your average human gangster. Long story short, Joe is murdered and then brought back to life as a non-breathing, super-strong zombie who will "live" forever if he consumes a human heart every day to keep his body from rotting away. Here, Joe realizes what has happened to him: “My world drops out from under me. I tell myself that I don’t feel any different, only I do. My lungs, the missing aches and pains, my blown-out knee. I peel back one of the bandages on my sliced up hands. The cuts are gone. My body feels like somebody’s thrown the off switch but forgot to tell me about it.” (p. 27) The only thing that will save Joe from this horrific existence is to gain possession of Giavetti’s gemstone. He’ll never get his human life back, but if he has the stone, his body will remain “human.”

     Of course, Joe is not the only one who is after this extremely powerful stone with its power of immortality. As Joe follows the clues, he meets several weird and dangerous people—some of whom are out to get him and one who agrees to help him. The supporting characters include a cop on a mission of revenge, a Nazi doctor who shoots flame from his fingertips, a razor-toothed midget, a young bruja (aka witch), a bar-tending demon, and a beautiful immortal woman who can’t be trusted.  

     Joe tells his story in his own wry and profane voice, all street-tough on the outside and newly vulnerable inside. Blackmoore has created a terrific character in Joe. Even though he is a lowlife and a candidate for Death Row (if he ever got caught), the reader sympathizes with his deadly plight and roots for him to win in the end.

     Naturally enough, the book has numerous scenes of graphic, bloody violence and a multitude of f-bombs, but it also has moments of noir humor—sometimes unintended—that lighten things up, and lots of quirky characters (for example, Gabriela, the sexy, young bruja who commands a crew of foul-mouthed gangbangers, has a graduate degree in sociology, and focuses her energy on helping the city's homeless, drug-addicted vampires). This is a terrific kick-off to a new series that seems headed for major success in the urban fantasy market. Click HERE to read an excerpt from City of the Lost

            NOVEL 2:  Dead Things            
     The catalyst for the action is a phone call Eric Carter receives his old friend, Alex Kim, with the bad news that his sister, Lucy, has been horribly mutilated and murdered, probably by a magical being. When Eric heads back to L.A. and visits the crime scene, he discovers that the murderer left a message for him and that Lucy's death was just bait to lure Eric back to town. The story follows Eric as he reunites with Alex, comes to terms with a former lover (Dr. Vivian Winters, a mage), tangles with the mage who has taken over Boudreau's territory, and tries to figure out the murderer's identity and what the murderer wants from him. Along the way are many scenes in which Eric is beaten, shot, stabbed, and generally worked over mercilessly by various thugs, both human and supernatural. One of Eric's earliest and most promising clues comes from Santa Muerte (aka Mictecacihuatl, Aztec goddess of death), a powerful supernatural spirit who appears to him in the form of a skeletal female figure clad in a ragged wedding gown. She is determined to trade her information for access to Eric's powers. Eventually Santa Muerte maneuvers Eric into a situation in which he is forced to make a deal with her without understanding the exact terms of their agreement. By the end of the book, one of Eric’s friends has been killed, Vivian despises him, and he realizes that he is now tied to Santa Muerte through a seemingly unbreakable bond.

     Blackmoore has created an intricate plot with enough red herrings to make early identification of the murderer difficult, but not impossible. As Eric stumbles through his investigation, he has to rely on information from old friends and new acquaintances—both human and supernatural—and he can never be sure which ones—if any—he can trust. Blackmoore introduces each character and then adds layers of back story as the plot moves along, so we gradually learn more and more about the characters and their motives. The fast-paced action is compelling, as Eric gets beaten back each time he takes a step forward towards a final solution of the case. 

     Eric tells his story in the first person using the simple present tense ("I say," "I take a shower," "I walk around," "I get into the car"), which gets irritating at times, but carries the story forward in a brusque, no-nonsense manner that works well with the noir tone of the book. Eric is himself a noirish character, torn by his feelings of guilt for leaving his sister alone, regretting the loss of Vivian's love and trust, and fearing and despising his relationships with the capricious supernatural beings who hire him to do their dirty work. Although the character types and some plot elements will be familiar to readers of noir fiction, this is still a well-told story with complex characterization and a nicely constructed plot. 

     The ending is a cliff hanger of sorts for Eric, so I assume that we'll hear more of Eric's story in future books. Click HERE to read the first chapter of Dead Things.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

UPDATE! Caris Roane's GUARDIANS OF ASCENSION SERIES


UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Caris Roane with a review of the sixth book in her GUARDIANS OF ASCENSION SERIES: Gates of Rapture.


Click on either the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

UPDATE! Christine Warren's OTHERS SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Christine Warren with a review of the latest book in her OTHERS SERIES: Drive Me Wild.

Click on either the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Monday, February 25, 2013

UPDATE! Kim Harrison's HOLLOWS SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Kim Harrison with a review of the eleventh book in her THE HOLLOWS SERIES:  Ever After.

Click on the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jeri Smith-Ready: WVMP RADIO SERIES



Author:  Jeri Smith-Ready
Series:  WVMP RADIO
Plot Type:  UF
Ratings:  V5; S4; H3 
Publisher and Titles:  Pocket
    NOVELS: 
          Wicked Game (5/2008)
          Bad to the Bone (5/2009)
          Bring on the Night (7/2010)
          "Let It Bleed" (e-novella, 2012)
          Lust for Life (11/2012) (FINAL)

    TIE-IN SHORT STORIES (To read the first four stories, click on the pink-link titles below.)
         "Crossroads" (Monroe's story)
         "Rave On" (Spencer's story)
         "When the Music's Over" (Jim's story)
         "Last Request" (Shane's story)
         "Thief" in Eternal: Love Stories with Bite (11/2010)

          INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES          
     This series began back in 2008 and has been dormant since 2010. Now, the author has written an e-novella and a final book to tie things up for good:  "Let It Bleed" and Lust for Life. I read the first four books at the time they were publishedlong before I started this blogso I don't have individual reviews on hand (or in my memory). Therefore, I'm breaking a personal rule by including the author's web-site summaries for the first four books. The reviews of "Let It Bleed" and Lust for Life, though, are mine.

          WORLD-BUILDING          
     When former con-artist Ciara (pronounced KEERA-ah) Griffin gets a marketing job at a failing radio station in small-town Sherwood, Maryland, she soon learns that the station’s DJs are all vampires, so she turns the station into “WVMP—the Lifeblood of Rock ’n’ Roll,” and the vampires are an instant success with the listeners. Each vampire plays only the music that was popular during the decade preceding his or her death, and each book includes a play list of the songs that are intricately woven into the plot. The sudden reappearance of Ciara’s double-dealing father and a paramilitary group called the International Agency for the Control and Management of Undead Corporeal Entities (aka the Control), which governs many aspects of the vampires’ lives, complicate the lives of Ciara and the vampires.

     Vampires in this world have the traditional sun-sensitivity, super-strength and speed, and reliance on human blood. When one of these vampires dieseither from decapitation or a stake through the heartits body inverts through the wound and disappears, leaving just the clothing behind. In this mythology, when a human is turned into a vampire, he or she is stuck mentally in the time period in which the turn takes place. At WVMP, this means that each DJ specializes in the music that was popular during the decade prior to his or her death. In an inventive twist, the vamps at WVMP are members of the "27 club," the term used to refer to the long list of legendary musicians who died at that young age. So...no matter how long ago they were turned, all of the DJs appear to be in their late twenties. 

     Ciara’s love interest is the DJ, Shane McAllister, a 1990s grunge rocker. As the series moves along, Ciara and her friends battle evil in several forms, including a powerful and violent vampire who wants to keep vampires out of the public eye and a group of fanatics who want all vampires dead. 

     Humor is both situational and conversational and includes the consequences of an odd vampiric trait of obsessive-compulsive behavior (e.g., alphabetizing a CD collection, compulsively counting things). 

          BOOK 1:  Wicked Game          
     Recovering con-artist Ciara Griffin is trying to live the straight life, even if it means finding a (shudder!) real job. She takes an internship at a local radio station, whose late-night time-warp format features 1940s blues, 60s psychedelia, 80s Goth, and more, all with an uncannily authentic flair. Ciara soon discovers how the DJs maintain their cred: they’re vampires, stuck forever in the eras in which they were turned.

     Ciara’s first instinct, as always, is to cut and run. But communications giant Skywave wants to buy WMMP and turn it into just another hit-playing clone. Without the station—and the link it provides to their original Life Times—the vampires would “fade,” becoming little more than mindless ghosts of the past. Suddenly a routine corporate takeover becomes a matter of life and un-death.

     To boost ratings and save the lives of her strange new friends, Ciara re-brands the station as “WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock ’n’ Roll.” In the ultimate con, she hides the DJs’ vampire nature in plain sight, disguising the bloody truth as a marketing gimmick. WVMP becomes the hottest thing around—next to Ciara’s complicated affair with grunge vamp Shane McAllister. But the “gimmick” enrages a posse of ancient and powerful vampires who aren’t so eager to be brought into the light. Soon the stakes are higher—and the perils graver—than any con game Ciara has ever played. Click HERE to read chapter one of Wicked Game.

          BOOK 2:  Bad to the Bone          
     Ciara Griffin is now WVMP's station manager, and it's her job to manage an on-air staff of off-the-wall DJs—including her new boyfriend Shane McAllister—who really sink their teeth into the music of their ‘Life Time” (the era in which they became vampires). Ciara must keep the undead rocking, the ratings rolling, and the fan base alive—without missing a beat.

     For Halloween, WVMP is throwing a bash sure to raise the dead. They’ve got cool tunes, hot costumes, killer cocktails—what could go wrong? Well, for starters, a religious firebrand ranting against the evils of the occult preempts the station’s midnight broadcast. Then, when Ciara tracks down the illegal transmission, the broadcast tower is guarded by what appears to be…a canine vampire? And behind it all is a group of self-righteous radicals who think vampires suck (and are willing to stake their lives on it).

     Now Ciara must protect the station while struggling with her own murky relationship issues, her best friend’s unlikely romance with a fledgling vampire, and the nature of her mysterious anti-holy powers. Click HERE to read chapter one of Bad to the Bone.

          BOOK 3:  Bring on the Night          
     Ciara seems to finally have it all. A steady job at WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll. A loving relationship with the idiosyncratic but eternally hot DJ Shane McAllister. A vampire dog named Dexter (120-pound Great Dane/Lab mix) who never needs shots or a pooper-scooper. And after nine years, it looks as if she might actually finish her bachelor's degree!

     But fate has other plans for Ciara. First she must fulfill her Faustian bargain with the Control, the paranormal paramilitary agency that does its best to keep vampires in line. Turns out the Control wants her for something other than her (nonexistent) ability to kick undead ass. Her anti-holy blood, perhaps?

     Ciara's suspicions are confirmed when she's assigned to a special-ops division known as the Immanence Corps, run by the the Control's oldest vampire and filled with humans who claim to have special powers. To a confirmed skeptic like Ciara, it sounds like a freak fest. But when a mysterious, fatal virus spreads through Sherwood—and corpses begin to rise from their graves—Ciara will not only get a crash course in zombie-killing, but will be forced to put her faith, and her life itself, in the hands of magic. Click HERE to read chapters one and two of Bring on the Night.

          E-Novella: “Let It Bleed”          
     This novella begins three weeks after Ciara was turned into a vampire after dying from a mutant chicken pox virus during the zombie plague. As she settles into her life as a fledgling vampire, she must deal with her need for a human blood donor and her increasing obsession with word games. Ciara explains, "A few years after being turned, most vampires develop an obsessive-compulsive behavior. As the world changes so fast around us, we need something to help us feel like we're in control..For me it's words: rearranging them, dissecting their meaning, correcting others on their usage." Another change in her life is that her blood is no longer "anti-holy." Before Ciara died and was reborn as a vampire, her blood would cure a vampire's holy-water burns (which generally result in permanent scarring), but that is no longer true.

     In addition to her adjustment to vampire life, Ciara must also work through the awkwardness that has developed in her relationship with her best (human) friend, Lori, who is having trouble dealing with Ciara's fangy, blood-loving condition. Just as Ciara is ready to walk down the aisle as Lori's maid of honor, hippie DJ Jim, whose behavior has become increasingly erratic, calls a Code Black, forcing all the vamps to immediately leave the wedding. When they arrive at Jim's bloody crime scene, they discover that he has murdered a human couple, supposedly in self defense. To Ciara's amazement and horror, she discovers that the dead couple shares her true last name: O'Riley. Are they relatives? Were they looking for her? If so, how did they find her?
     Soon thereafter, as Ciara and her WVMP friends are enjoying Shane's first live concert, her long-lost Irish Traveller cousins turn up—one of whom (Cass) is the daughter of the murdered couple. Cass is searching for her parents, and Ciara has to figure out a way to tell her the bad news. As events play out, Ciara gets new information about her unholy blood, but then Jim goes completely wacko, with horrific results for both Ciara and Cass. Near the end, Ciara and Monroe (her maker) finally achieve a relatively comfortable relationship.

     The events in this novella are referenced in Lust for Life, which begins six months after this story ends, so you'll probably want to read this one first. Click HERE to go to links on the author's web site for a free download of "Let It Bleed." 

          BOOK 5: Lust for Life (FINAL)          
     Ciara and Shane are enjoying their life together as a vampire couple, even though Ciara still won't let Shane bite her. As the book opens, they are planning their wedding, which is about a month away. When they get a call from Deirdre, the last of Jim's progeny (and Shane's former lover/donor), they try to help her out, but run into trouble when Jim appears at her door, having escaped from the Control. In the melee that follows, Shane kills Jim, causing a series of serious consequences, not the least of which is that Shane must appear before a Control tribunal to be held accountable for his actions.

     As the WVMP team struggles to deal with Jim's death, a posse of his vengeful "children" come to town determined to assassinate Shane, Ciara, and Monroe (who was the one who restrained Jim back in the novella by jabbing wooden pencil "stakes" into his heart). As the plot plays out, Ciara and her friends are forced into a defensive posture as they try to protect themselves from a horde of grief-crazed hippie vampires. Will Shane and Ciara live long enough to make it to their wedding? 

     Smith-Ready chooses a woo-woo ending for this final book in the series, one that is totally unpredictable and way, way out there in the land of absurdity. I can't say that it's a completely satisfying ending, but it does tie up the loose ends and provide the characters with a way forward (just in case the author wants to come back to their story at a later date). All in all, this has been a strong series with well-developed lead characters and a quirky and appealing supporting cast (including Dexter, the vampire dog). Click HERE to read chapter one of Lust for Life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

UPDATE! Diana Rowland's KARA GILLIAN SERIES


UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Diana Rowland with a review of the fifth book in her KARA GILLIAN SERIES: Touch of the Demon.

Click on either the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

UPDATE! Dani Harper's CHANGELING SERIES


UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Dani Harper with a review of the third book in her CHANGELING SERIES: Changeling Dawn

Click on either the author's name or the book title above to go directly to the updated review.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Deborah Coates: HALLIE MICHAELS SERIES

Author:  Deborah Coates
Series:  HALLIE MICHAELS SERIES
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 http://www.gps-coordinates.net 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)

          WORLD-BUILDING          
     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.