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Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Author:  Nancy Holzner
Series:  DEADTOWN 
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
        Deadtown (12/2009)
          Hellforged (12/2010)
          Bloodstone (9/2011)
          Darklands (7/2012)
          Hellhound (10/2013)

     This post was updated and revised on 12/13/13 to include a review of Hellhound, the fifth book in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building, a brief summary of books 1 and 2, and  full reviews of books 3 and 4:
          BOOK 5:  Hellhound          
     At the end of Darklands, the Night Hag left Vicky on the horns of a true dilemma. If Vicky doesn't hand over the white falcon to the Hag, her boyfriend, Kane, will be forced to become one of the Hag's hellhounds for the next 12 full moonsand Vicky will be one of the first targets that the Hag will send him to kill. Why doesn't Vicky just give the Hag the falcon and save Kane? Two reasons: First, that falcon is possessed by the spirit and voice of her long-dead father, and second, the bird is part of a prophecy that foresees that it is vital to defeating the demons in the coming Apocalypse. So…what's Vicky to do? That, my friend, is what this book is all about.

     Before Vicky can deal with the falcon/hellhound situation, though, she gets called in to assist the police (specifically her former boyfriend, Detective Daniel Costello) with a zombie problem. A zombie has seemingly gone mad, murdering three humans and then exploding into a puddle of black goo. When Vicky analyzes the crime scene, she realizes that the Morfranan evil, destructive spirit of insatiable demonic hungerhad infiltrated the zombie, causing his murderous behavior and then eating him up from the inside. As more and more zombies exhibit this horrific behavior, Vicky must concentrate on solving the case, but she still worries constantly about Kane and her falcon father (although she doesn't bother to disclose to either one of them the details of this very serious problem). Then, to make matters even worse, she has visions of herself fighting on the side of the demonskilling innocents while the apocalypse rages around her on the Boston Common. Her demon mark burns constantly now, and her control over her inner rage is tenuous at best. Sometimes, she just wants to let it all run free and kill whateveror whoeveris in front of her. 

     The Morfran has been part of the plots of previous books in this series. As Vicky explains it, the Morfran "is the power that animates demons and gives them their strength. You could say that, for demons, the Morfran is a corrupt version of the human soul. Morfran means 'great crow.' My race of shape shifters, the Cerddorion, has battled the Morfran, keeping demons weak, from the very beginnings of time. But the demons had other plans. For centuries, they'd bided their time, watching for signs and omens that their prophesied chance to rule the three realmsthe worlds of the living, the dead, and the demonicwas coming to pass. Pryce Maddox, a demi-demon who calls himself my cousin, believed the time was now. And Pryce would stop at nothing to be the conquering emperor." (p. 14)

     As Vickymostly on her own, as usualgathers clues and continues her investigation, she is not surprised to find that Pryce and Vicky's demonic nemesis, Difethwr (aka the Destroyer, aka the Hellion), are at the heart of the problem. Oddly enough, another demon is the key to helping her solve the case, although she has to suffer through a lot of sarcastic demonic "humor" before the annoying little demon finally comes through in the end.    

     The events in this novel begin to pull together the beginnings of resolution for the story arc of this series, but a number of loose ends remain in the end. As the requisite showdown plays out in the big finale, Vicky's powers finally come together and she realizes what her magical destiny is supposed to be. Whether she accepts it or not is quite another issue. The romance between Vicky and Kane is still on, but I would like to see them have a few more scenes together. As it is, Vicky keeps telling herself (and the reader) that she loves Kane, but we rarely see them in anything but crisis situations.  

     Several supporting characters play key roles in this book: Mab flies over from Wales to help Vicky with the Hag and the Morfran. Maria (Vicky's niece) moves closer and closer to her first shift. Daniel finally accepts Vicky's help and even pays her some consulting fees. Tina, Vicky's zombie apprentice, steps up to save the falcon's life in one precarious scene and then finds herself in deadly peril.  

     This is another strong entry in a top-notch urban fantasy series. The heroine continues to be strong, courageous, and independent (sometimes too independent), and the action moves along at a nice pace. I'm looking forward to the next novel, in which Vicky will be forced to deal with her new powers and with some new demon problems.  

     In this series, the paranormal world is dominated by zombies in the aftermath of a recent worldwide plague, which affected humans, but not supernaturals. These are not the evil, brain-sucking monsters of The Walking Dead. Instead, these zombies are relatively normal (except for their physical rot and attraction to human blood), and they hold many of the service jobs in Boston (e.g., janitors, waitresses, doormen, cab drivers). Some of them even serve on a branch of the Boston Police Department called the Goon Squad, which specializes in paranormal crime. Other types of paranormals in this world include vampires, shifters, and demons, with the demons being the evil villains. Holzner has, however, contributed to the humor of the series with demons like Glitches, which infest computers. (Didn't you always suspect that glitches were demons?)

     Victory “Vicky” Vaughn is a Cerddorion (pronounced ker-THOR-yon), a shape-shifter who specializes in killing demons. She lives in Deadtown, a quarantined section of Boston that is the legally designated permanent home for all paranormal residents, all of whom have very few civil rights in Massachusetts and no rights at all in most of the other forty-nine states. There is, of course, an anti-supernatural group, Humans First, that rants continually against the paranormal community. Politically correct people use terms, like "paranormal Americans" (PA) instead of "monsters" and "previously deceased humans" instead of "zombies," but most humans are just plain fearful of all supernaturals. If a paranormal travels between human and paranormal zones in Boston, he or she must complete reams of paperwork and be subjected to several intrusive checkpoints along the way.

     Vicky’s Cerddorion talents include the ability to shape-shift into any sentient being, but her shifts are limited to three per month. As is true of most UF heroines, Vicky has had an unhappy childhood during which she accidentally called forth a powerful demon (Difethwr, the Destroyer) that killed her father and left its mark on Vicky. That mark has caused Vicky to succumb to mind-blowing rage at emotional times during the past ten years, severely limiting her social life. Vicky is a demon exterminator; she gets rids of people's personal demonsthe ones who haunt their nightmares. Most of Vicky’s clients are norms (i.e., normal humans, aka bloodbags), so Vicky must walk a thin line between the human world of greater Boston and the craziness of Deadtown. Vicky’s sister, Gwen, has adopted a norm life. She turned her back on her Cerddorion heritage by marrying a human and having children. Giving birth banishes a Cerddorion’s demon-killing abilities. 

     As the series begins, Vicky’s two love interests are the werewolf Alexander Kane, a workaholic activist lawyer, and Daniel Costello, a human Boston Police Department homicide detective. She has feelings for both of them, but is so involved in her demon hunting and so affected by her demon mark (especially in Deadtown) that she has little time for romantic escapades, at least in the first two books. 

Here is a list of other supporting characters in the series:
     > Axel: owner of Creature Comforts, a bar in the safe zone that caters to supernaturals and whose species is unknown until book 3
     > Juliet Capulet: Vicky's vampire roommate, and, yes, she is really the original Julietthe one whose story Shakespeare used in his famous play  
     > Maria: Gwen's daughter, who may develop Cerddorion characteristics 
     > Mab: Vicky's aunt, a powerful Cerddorion who lives in Wales and has been Vicky's mentor and teacher since she was a child  
     > Tina: Vicky's teen-age zombie apprentice

     Vicky reminds me a lot of Rachel, Kim Harrison’s heroine in THE HOLLOWS series. Both are demon-marked (though in different ways), both are able to travel to the demon realm, both have vampire roommates, and both have a nemesis on the police force. The difference is that Rachel is a witch who doesn’t get into physical battles, while Vicky carries multiple weapons (lots of bronze knives) and is constantly getting beat up by various demonic forces. Although this series doesn’t have quite the literary depth of THE HOLLOWS, it’s still a strong UF series with a relatively non-whiny heroine (always a plus), compelling plots, and interesting supporting characters.

     If you're looking for some zombie humor, click HERE to read a guest blog in which Tina Terror (Vicky's teen-age zombie apprentice) gives us the lowdown on the four things that humans just don't get about zombies. Click HERE to read Holzner's description of how she built the character of Victory Vaughn. Click HERE to go to page on Holzner's web site with links to more information about Welsh mythology, the Cerddorion, demons, and the zombie plague.

     Click HERE to go to the All Things Urban Fantasy blog to read a guest blog by Nancy Holzner in which she includes a faux fact sheet entitled "Understanding the Previously Deceased." The fact sheet is purportedly issued by the mayor of Boston, and it explains the H-DED-1 Virus (aka the zombie virus), including a history of the disease, symptoms, and legal considerations. Click HERE to read a short story in which Vicky and Tina have an adventure with Little Bo Peep that doesn't quite fit in with the familiar nursery rhyme.

          SUMMARY OF BOOKS 1 & 2:  Deadtown and Hellforged          

     In Deadtown, Vicky must rescue Gwen’s daughter, Maria, who has been kidnapped by a mad scientist who wants to experiment on paranormals. Vicky also faces down Difethwr and believes that she has sent him permanently back to Hell. Unfortunately, at the beginning of Hellforged, Vicky learns that he’s baaaacck! In that book, Vicky tries to determine who is killing zombies, specifically zombies with whom Vicky has had recent contact. She also meets and fights against a distant relative (Pryce) who is definitely not one of the good guys. The title of Hellforged comes from a special demon-killing dagger (an athame) given to Vicky by her Aunt Mab, with whom she can communicate both in person and in her dreams. Hellforged provides a wealth of information about the Cerddorion mythology, all of which ties directly into the plot.

          BOOK 3:  Bloodstone          
     As Bloodstone opens, a serial killer is at work in Boston, using a curved blade to carve up his victims and earning himself the nickname South End Reaper. Vicky is certain that the Reaper is a human who has been possessed by the Morfranthe evil crow spirits who caused all the trouble during the climax of the previous book. But Vicky has other problems, as well. Her vampire roommate, Juliet, has been missing for weeks and is suspected by the police of being complicit in the murder of a Supreme Court Justice. Suddenly, Juliet turns herself in to the Goon Squad, telling them that she needs their protection.

     As Vicky investigates, she learns that Juliet's connection with the Old Ones (powerful ancient vampires) is not what it seems and that Juliet's life is in danger. When Vicky is captured by Old Ones, who are working in league with an evil demi-demon wizard (Myrddin Wyllt), her life is also in danger and so is Kane's when he comes to her rescue. Vicky's Aunt Mab also steps up to help, but with tragic results. Vicky soon learns that Myrddin has a connection with Pryce, and she discovers what happened to Pryce after he disappeared (in the previous book). Several plot lines are interwoven throughout this book as Vicky searches for the Reaper, attempts to defeat Myrddin, and works to save the lives of all three of her biggest supporters (i.e., Juliet, Kane, and Mab). This book gives us a great deal of important new information: the real cause of the zombie plague, the reason why Vicky's sister (Gwen) hates Mab so much, Mab's own personal history, and (last, but not least) Axel's true paranormal heritage.

     For me, Bloodstone is the strongest book in an already terrific series as it beautifully captures the mind-numbing reality of the Boston paranormal world, with its voluminous paperwork, never-ending checkpoints, menacing police visits, neighborhood lock downs, and the heartbreak of demi-human parents as they face the possibility of losing custody of children who develop paranormal traits. The parts of the story dealing with Gwen and Maria, are heartbreaking, as Gwen struggles to accept the fact that Maria will probably be a shape shifter, and Maria deals with her strange dreams, her mother's emotional state, and her own adolescence. The relationship between Vicky and Kane deepens in this book, as they support each other in a variety of ways. Mab's character is developed much more fully here, with extensive information on her tragic family history and an explanation of the power contained in her bloodstone necklace, which is an important plot point. This series gets better and betterI can't wait for the next book.  

          BOOK 4:  Darklands          

     As the title indicates, much of this book takes place in the Darklands, a dark realm inhabited by the spirits of the dead as they go through a period before they are either regenerated as spirits or reborn as humans. But, let's start at the beginning: In the very first scene, a Harpy attacks Vicky as she is giving a talk to Tina's zombie classmates about her job as a demon slayer. Since Harpies only attack when they are summoned and directed towards a target, Vicky knows that someone is trying to kill her, and she suspects that someone is Pryce, her evil cousin. Pryce was a demi-demon until Vicky killed his demon half in the climax of Bloodstone. Now, Pryce has figured out a way to capture and imprison a whole slew of demons so that he can use them to regain his demonic powers. Vicky is determined to stop Pryce, particularly after she and her Aunt Mab see a vision of the future that shows Pryce gloating over a devastated Boston with the city's inhabitants dead and its buildings in ruins.

     The story follows Vicky as she makes a deal with the Night Hag to follow Pryce into the Darklands. The Night Hag drives a hard bargain, though, and Vicky must bring her back three precious objects, all of which are almost impossible for Vicky to touch, let alone steal. When Vicky arrives in the Darklands, she is rescued almost immediately by someone from her past who has been dead for many years. He helps her find her way to the magic cauldron in which Pryce has hidden his demon collection, but then things go terribly wrong, and Vicky winds up in a showdown with a demon she thought was gone forever.

     Two subplots add depth to the story. First, the continuing saga of Vicky's sister and her family is always interesting. Maria, who is developing Cerddorion abilities, is having to deal with some weird shape-shifting effects, and she doesn't trust her mother enough to confide in her. The second subplot concerns a guilt demon that Vicky summons to get information on what Pryce is plotting. When Vicky doesn't kill the demon at the end of the summoning, it sticks around for the rest of the story, pouring on the guilt so that Vicky is frequently doubled over (literally) with guilty pain as she remembers all of the wrong decisions she has made during her life. This, of course, makes for many, many angst-filled interior monologues. Later, when Tina gives Vicky some demon-controlling advice, the guilt demon (now nicknamed Butterfly) turns into the only character in this book to provide some comic relief.

     The romance between Vicky and Kane is still developing, but it hits a few snags in this story. Kane expresses his love for Vicky, but she isn't quite ready to say the "L" word. Eventually, Kane demonstrates just how deeply he loves Vicky in a self-sacrifice that puts Vicky in a situation in which she will be forced to make some tough choices in the next book. For me, Vicky's romance with Kane just doesn't work. They are rarely together; they never have a real conversation; and I can't really understand where all the love is coming from. Vicky is definitely a lone ranger kind of heroine. She is almost always alone as she takes off on her various adventures, never asking for help from anyone. Although another person sometimes helps her out, it's not because she invited them along. 

     This is probably my least favorite book of the series so far. The whole Darklands plot line is a little too woo-woo for me, with its all-new mythology, characters, and rules. Having the long-lost character show up out of nowhere to assist Vicky in the Darklands seemed manipulative and artificial, as did the return of Vicky's nemesis demon. I'll keep reading, but I'm hoping for a better book next time.

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