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Saturday, April 12, 2014


Author:  Lauren M. Roy
Series:  NIGHT OWLS   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) with elements of Horror
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality1; Humor—2-3 
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          Night Owls (3/2014)  
          Grave Matters (3/2015)  

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 3/24/15 with a review of Grave Matters, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of Night Owls

                 NOVEL 2:  Grave Matters                 
     The story begins about two months after Night Owls ends, and all of the characters are dealing with various personal issues. Elly is still working for Ivanov, the Russian vampire (Stregoi) who leads the Boston vamps, but she isn't entirely comfortable in the job. She and her foster brother, Cavale, are living together and trying to restart their former sibling relationship, but they are still uneasy with one another, partly because Elly is suppressing deep anger with Cavale over his leaving her behind with Father Value all those years ago. Because of her horrific childhood experiences, Elly has a great deal of trouble relating to people. In one scene, she awkwardly attempts to comfort Justin: "She laid a hand on Justin's arm. Patted it stiffly, like a toddler first learning how to interact with the family pet. He lifted his head to meet her gaze, and the two shared a look of mute terror borne of social interaction." Oh, and let's not forget the fact that Marian, Elly's long-absent mother, is still hanging around. Chaz met her in book 1, and she's back for a puzzling cameo appearance in this book. In a story thread that winds throughout the book, Cavale learns to cook so that he can create a happy home atmosphere for Elly. Good luck with that, Cavale.

     Other characters are also having problems: Justin is trying to adjust to being a mixed-breed supernatural creature—Jackal (Creep) and vampire. Chaz is feeling inadequate because he is now the weakest human in the gang. Val is having trouble keeping herself from hunting down humans. And then we have Lia and Sunny, the succubi couple, who are worried that their former demon master will find them and force them to return to him. The emotional and relationship problems of the cast members are detrimental to the pace of the plot because each time one of their stories takes over the narrative, their personal problems tend to overwhelm the investigational details related to the primary plot. Authors generally deal with the personal problems of secondary characters by taking them on one at a time—mentioning specific problems of a character in passing in one book and then concentrating on that character in an ensuing book so that, book by book, each character gets a turn in the spotlight, and the primary plot doesn't get overwhelmed by an excess of sideline story threads.

     The main plot revolves around a necromancer who is raising the dead in Crow's Neck, the run-down neighborhood in which Cavale and Elly live. As the book opens, a young neighbor asks for Elly's help in getting rid of a ghost in her house. When Elly investigates, she finds and kills a ghoul (an animated corpse) that has a strange dagger-shaped sigil drawn on its arm. Soon, more ghouls turn up with the sigil and then some vampires—all under the control of the unidentified necromancer. In a secondary story line that eventually connects with the main plot, a band of Irish vampires threatens Ivanov's sovereignty in Southy (South Boston).

     The previous novel was written from three points of view (POV): Elly, Chaz, and Val. This novel adds Cavale to the POV list. Sometimes the point of view switches mid-chapter, and that can make the story-telling seem disjointed.

     Although the author has come up with a decent plot, her execution is weak. The reader has no way to figure out who is behind all of the violence and necromancy because there are no clues in the narrative. What happens is that every once in awhile a character—usually Elly—will stop and summarize what's happening by leaping to conclusions based on little or no evidence or logic. The result is an action-filled story in which the good guys run around fighting various battles without knowing exactly what's going on until one of them goes into know-all-tell-all mode, at which time they all believe him or her and continue bumbling along until someone makes the next major pronouncement. 

     Although the story is fast paced, the plot lacks structure and has several bumpy spots. For example, the author spends a lot of page space on Val and Chaz's evaluation of the huge library in the home that belonged to Henry and Helen (the couple murdered by the Creeps in Night Owls), but that library provides only a single clue for the necromancer case. At one point, one of the ghouls turns up at the house, throwing books around in one of the book-filled rooms, but the reason for the ghoul's presence is never fully explained. Justin rescues Chaz from said ghoul, and we never hear any more about why the ghoul was there. If the ghoul was looking for a specific book, how would the necromancer (the one controlling the ghoul) have known that Henry owned that book. This detail is ever addressed. This is not the only bump—it's just an example.

     To sum it up: This book is weaker than the first book, primarily because the author stuffed so much unnecessary character-related narrative into a book that is only 294 pages long. What the book needs is a better plot structure, one that plays out with a gradual build-up of clues and evidence that gives the reader a chance to figure out what's going on. When a book relies on unsubstantiated sum-it-up passages by the main character, it means that the author didn't spend enough time planning ahead. On the author's web site, she admits to being a "pantser," but she really should have been more of a planner when she wrote this book. To read an excerpt from Grave Matters, click HERE to go to the book's page and click on the cover art.

     Roy has created a fresh and inventive world built around some familiar supernatural types, but with the addition of a very non-traditional group. Instead of using a single leading character or even a pair, she begins by giving us four (two women and two men) and then adds a fifth (another man) at the end of book 1. Some reviewers are calling this a read-alike for Anne Bishop, Patricia Briggs, and Seanan McGuire. I would agree that this is the type of story that those authors write, but Roy is not by any means in the ballpark with them (at least not yet) as far as quality of writing. The series definitely has potential, but based on book 1, it has some rough edges that need tending to in future books.

     In this world, the supernatural population includes vampires, demons, and Jackals (aka Creeps). The vampires keep a low profile, drinking only donated blood and keeping their true identities hidden from the mortal world. These vamps have supersonic speed and strength, are extremely sensitive to sunlight and holy water, and sleep during the day. The method by which a human is changed into a vampire is much more gory than the traditional process. (It is described in detail in the first novel, so I won't discuss it here.)

     The demons also live among humans without showing their true natures. In the first novel, we meet a pair of lesbian succubi who live in a lovely suburban home and mind their own business, helping out their vampire friend when necessary. 

     The Creeps/Jackals are the villains of this world because they prey openly on humans, giving the rest of the supernaturals a bad name. The Creeps are carnivorous and are particularly fond of chowing down on virgins of either gender. They also smell really bad ("Blood and rot and crawling things," Night Owls, p. 18) In general, they travel in small groups and live in "nests." They have their own guttural language; use runes as part of their magic; and are extremely sensitive to sun, holy water, rowan wood, and silver. Here, one character explains what is known about them: "We're not quite certain what the Creeps are, at heart. They take the bodies of their victims, usually after death, but not always. They've been able to turn the living as well, Whether the original personality remains seems to depend on the circumstances of their turning. Some retain pieces of themselves, some don't….We don't know precisely what it is that enters the bodies. Some kind of wraith, perhaps, or lesser demons too weak to have forms of their own. But once it's done, the change is permanent. They'll go around, killing indiscriminately, feasting on flesh and causing a panic." (Night Owls, p. 40) Creeps can make themselves look human or they can go completely animalistic: "heads completely canine, covered in short black fur, their bodies bulging with muscles and twisted as they [lope]...on all fours." (Night Owls, p. 214) Generally though, they walk on two feet, but allow their heads to turn into fanged muzzles with furry, pointy earsall covered up by nondescript hoodies. In Grave Matters, we learn that Creeps can spread their condition either through a bite, although that can frequently result in death rather than transformation. There is also a slower transformation method that involves the Creep eating a piece of the victims heart and then forcing the victim to eat a piece of raw Creep flesh.

     The main enemy of the Creeps is the Brotherhood, an ancient cult-like organization that has, for centuries, battled the Creeps and other Monsters in an attempt to eliminate them entirely. Lately, the Creeps have not been having much luck turning humans, so with that problem and with the Brotherhood constantly on their trail, their numbers have dropped considerably over the past few decades. Members of the Brotherhood are well-trained Hunters who use a variety of weapons, tools, and magic to defeat the Creeps. In general, the Brotherhood doesn't bother the vamps or the demons unless one of them goes rogue and harms humans. 

     The series is set in the town of Edgewood, which appears to be on the East Coast within a few hours driving time of Boston. Instead of a single hero or heroine, Roy has put together an ensemble cast. The point of view switches back and forth among three of them: Val, Chaz, and Elly. Here are the main characters who are introduced in book 1:

    > Eleanor (Elly) Garrett: She was raised by Father Value, a renegade Brother who was thrown out of the Brotherhood after he tried to use fighting methods that they didn't condone. Elly always thought that she was an orphan, but she learns differently in book 1. She learned all sorts of magical skills during her years with Father Value, and consequently, she is a skilled fighter, both with her weapons and her magic. Elle is 23 years old.

    > Cavale: He is a powerful warlock, also raised by Father Value and is a few years older than Elly. He walked away from Father Value and Elly when he couldn't stomach Father Value's indifference to sacrificing the lives of innocents if those deaths meant that he could kill more Monsters.

    > Valerie (Val) McTeague: A vampire born in the 1940s, she spent much of her life as a Hunter, but left after a battle with a nest of Creeps from which she emerged as the only survivor. Currently, she owns Night Owls, a book store in Edgewood.  

    > Charles (Chaz): He is Val's sardonic, slacker Renfield and is also secretly in love with her. Chaz is not like the original Renfield in Bram Stoker's novel. He is Val's personal assistant, works as the manager of Night Owls, and handles all of her daytime affairs. She does not drink his blood, and he does not want to become a vampire (at least not in book 1). Most of the humor comes in the verbal interaction between Chaz and Val and between Chaz and various book-store patrons and workers.

    > Sunny and Lia: Lesbian succubi pair who can glamour their appearance at will and generally appear as middle-aged humans. Their demonic appearance is traditionally huge, scaly, and fierce. They own a bakery next door to Night Owls, but they also have day jobs: Sunny as a counselor and Lia as a gym coach at the local college.

    > Justin: He starts off as a human college student but then becomes something else after his adventures in book 1. Justin has a major crush on Elly. 

     There is also a group of vampires in Boston who turn up in book 1. Their second in commandKatyaplays a minor role in book 1 and will no doubt be back to annoy Val and torture Chaz in future books.

                 NOVEL 1:  Night Owls                   
     As in all series, the opening novel must carry a heavy expositional load. Mostly, we meet the large cast of characters and learn enough about their backstories to differentiate among them. Additionally, the author doles out information about the Creeps: their abilities and weaknesses, their history, and their physical appearance. All of this world-building slows down the pace a bit, making the build-up of dramatic tension spotty, at best. At the beginning, the story line follows two courses: Val's adventures and Elly's adventures. Soon, though, they converge and remain together for the rest of the book.  

     As the story opens, Val is living a contented, peaceful life as a bookstore owner in a college town when she gets a whiff of a Creep. When she tracks down the Creep (a woman), Val learns that she has brought some of her Creepy friends to Edgewood. Meanwhile, Elly is on the run from a Creep who is determined to steal an ancient book from her. Elly's mentor, Father Value, has just been murdered trying to keep the Creeps from getting the book, and Elly is determined that he won't have died in vain. Eventually, Val and Elly and the book all wind up in the rare books room at Night Owls, where Val determines that the book is written in Creepscrawlthe name she gives to the written language of the Creeps.

     The Creeps soon come for the book, and there are several bloody battles between the Creeps and the assorted good guys as the story line advances. Just after Val acquires the book, one of her employees (Justin) opens the book and sets off a ward that takes some of the crucial parts of the book and plants them in his brain. Now, Val and her team must figure out how to deal with Justin, the missing parts of the book, and the Creeps who want it all.

     Along with this primary story line, each character has his or her own personal story thread running alongside. Val has her horrible memories of her final Hunter battle and the loss of her friends. Chaz has his hidden love for Val and his feelings of inadequacy as her human protector/advisor/friend. Elly has lost her mentor and also her purpose in life. Father Value raised her to be a survivor, not a savior, but now that she has these new friends, she doesn't think that she can go back to being so cold-hearted. Cavale is seemingly content with his new life, but obviously has feelings for Elly. Justin is a wild card at this point. He is a nerdy virgin who gets mixed up in magical affairs that are far beyond his understanding, but by the end of the book, he finds himself on the side of the supernaturals for the long term. One strong point about the book is that it doesn't just go from battle to battle. In between the inevitable conflicts, we watch these people leading their "normal" lives: dealing with prickly interpersonal relationships, engaging in verbal sparring, and just trying to get along the best they can in a very complicated world. One of my favorite scenes involves Val working desperately to neaten up her living room before the big, bad vamps from Boston drop in for an unannounced visit while Chaz pulls out the dainty porcelain tea set and fills the teapot with fresh pig blood for their guests. Like I said…just trying to live a normal life.

     The story ends with the requisite showdown battle, but this one is just a bit too neat—especially because it hinges on a handy deus ex machina inserted by the author so that Val and Elly and their friends live to fight another day (and in another book).  

     The mythology has some rough spots. For example, even though Elly has been fighting the Creeps for years alongside a highly knowledgeable member of the Brotherhood, the two succubi tell her things about the Creeps that she never knew beforean improbability. In another scene, the succubi assure Val and her allies that their demonic wards will hold back the Creeps with no assistance needed from Elly and Cavale. Then, on the next page, one of the succubi tells them that the wards will hold for awhile, but not for the whole night. Sounds like a direct contradiction to me. Here's another contradiction: in an early chapter, Val has trouble taking down a single Creep, but later in the book, she rampages through hordes of Creeps with no trouble whatsoever.

     The fact that there are so many main characters means that we get only bits and pieces of their back stories, motivations, and personalities, although Roy does a decent job with the characterization given the limits of plot time and line space. Basically, this novel introduces us to everyone and sets up the series. In the epilogue, we get the catalyst for the second book.

     Even though this first book has a few draggy spots and several bumpy parts, I do look forward to reading the next book to see where Roy will go with her story now that all of the world-building is in place. To read an excerpt from Night Owls, click HERE to go to the book's page and click on the cover art.

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