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Friday, December 9, 2011


Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher and Titles:  Pocket
        Bitter Night (2009)
        Crimson Wind (2010)
        Shadow City (2011)
        Blood Winter (12/2012)

     This post was revised and updated on 3/2/13 to include a review of the fourth book in the series: Blood Winter. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1, 2, and 3: 

           BOOK 4:  Blood Winter           
    By now, the Guardians' apocalypse is beginning to have a widespread effect across the country, evidenced by the loss of electricity and the lack of food and supplies. It's kind of like the world of The Walking Dead, but with demonic monsters instead of zombies. As this book opens, the Horngate community is threatened by the malevolent Benjamin Sterling, a fanatical witch-hating witch who has taken over near-by Missoula with his huge army of well-armed, thoroughly indoctrinated followers. Sterling portrays himself as the Right Hand of God, and he spends lots of time in Biblical pontificating against the wickedness of witches. When Sterling creates a series of dire diversions, Giselle is forced to split her forces by sending out two teams of Shadowblades to deal with them, one headed by Max and the other by Alexander. This separation actually suits Max fine because Alexander is pressing her for a romantic commitment and she isn't ready to settle down and make their relationship public. The scenes alternate between Max and Alexander as they battle various supernatural villains while they try to figure out where their relationship is headed.

     Unfortunately, this is a simple, bare-bones plot that takes nearly 400 pages to play out, and it is padded all the way through with unnecessarily detailed descriptions of various monsters (e.g., rock troll, giant salamanders, demons) and with never-ending, repetitive battles. In fact, I couldn't wait to get to the ending, just so I wouldn't have to read one more graphic description of Max getting beaten nearly to death and then being quickly healed so that she can go on to her next beating. Here's just one example: "Her body was a mass of scarlet burns. Most of her clothes had been charred away....Her eyelids were gone and most of her nose....Her fingers were blackened stubs, and her skin looked like melted wax." (p. 206) Instead of adding complexity to the plot, the author has taken the easy way out by just dumping Max into one battle after another all the way through the book. 

     The Max-Alexander relationship drama is absurdly portrayed. Max mocks Alexander in public; shuns any public display of affection; demands sex on her command and then turns her back on him; refuses to discuss her feelings with him; and generally acts like a spoiled brat. At one point, Max realizes that Alexander is starting to pull back from her constant put-downs and thinks, "How was she going to fix this?" (p. 212) Her solution is to berate him a few pages later when he doesn't fall all over her as usual: "'Oh, so you talk, do you?' Max responded sourly. 'And here I thought you'd lost your voice. Or maybe you're just the strong, silent type....I get a feeling you've got a lot to say, Slick. In fact, I get the feeling you're choking on it. So, why don't you stop pouting like a five-year-old and get it off your chest, already?'" (p. 219) When Alexander finally decides he's had enough, Max is immediately devastated, but then she blames him for not hanging in until she gets her act together. She thinks to herself, "If he had ever really cared for her, he wouldn't have been able to shut down so completely. Which meant the real problem was that his ego was bruised." (p. 221) Yes, Max, it's all about ego—but yours, not his! All in all, Max is very unlikable in this book. One of the most improbable scenes for me is when Max kids around with the Shadowblade Tyler about how great Alexander is in bed. She won't discuss her relationship feelings with Alexander and she won't even acknowledge to the rest of the Blades that she and Alexander are an item, so it's entirely unbelievable that she would joke with Tyler about her terrific sex life. 

     Another improbability: Why does every bad thing happen during the night when the Shadowblades are up and around? Why don't the villains ever take action in the daytime when the Sunspears are active? Why even include Sunspears in this mythology if they are never part of the story (and we never see them in this one)? And one last nitpick: Why do so many of the characters have the weird habit of scraping their teeth across their lower lips when they're thinking about something. I would hazard a guess that the author invokes that bit of behavior 10-15 times during the story. 

    The author continually plays up the fact that each warrior must consume a minimum of 20,000 calories each day to feed both their bodies and the spells that support their magical strength and speed. That's the equivalent of 66 MacDonald's cheeseburgers or 80 hot dogs on buns or 18 Papa John's small cheese pizzas—per warrior per day. With the extreme shortage of food, where  are the witches finding enough food to feed these hungry warriors? And you've got to wonder how they maintain their minimum food requirements when they're out in the field for an entire day (or more) with only the power bars in their backpacks as a calorie source. Each warrior would have to pack (and eat) 100 200-calorie power bars to achieve the minimum calorie intake for a single day—highly improbable. Sometimes authors don't think things through when they construct their mythologies.

     In the action-filled ending scene (elements of which are predictable), the good guys are saved in the nick of time so that they can go on to fight more battles in the next book. (Note: This is not a Spoiler—every book in the series has that ending.)

     This series started off with an inventive mythology, strong characters, and interesting plot lines, but each book has been progressively weaker. This one is definitely a disappointing weak link, and I can only hope that the next one has a more complex plot and a better take on Max and her love life. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Blood Winter.

           WORLD BUILDING           
     In this world, the supernaturals are made up of two races: the Divine and the Uncanny. The Divine can cast spells and perform magic, while the Uncanny are created from magic but can't perform it. Witches are among the Divine, and they each hold an anneau (knot of magic) for the territory (aka covenstead) in which they live with their minions. Each witch derives power from his or her own unique source (e.g. from the earth, from the emotions of mortals). The witches are protected by two castes of Uncanny warriors: the Shadowblades, who work only at night because they are burned or melted by light (particularly sunlight and moonlight), and the Sunspears, who work during the day because they deteriorate in the dark. Both groups of warriors have been sworn and bound magically with compulsion spells that require them to protect their witches at any cost. Their only release from their bonds is death; they are immortal (no aging), but they can be killed. Some warriors enter into their profession willingly, but others are tricked or coerced. 

     When a mortal becomes a Shadowblade or a Sunspear, he or she attains self-healing powers and super-human strength, speed, and endurance. Some warriors have additional talents, depending on their witch's power and their own genetic make-up. 

     The heroine of the series is Max (formerly named Anne), who was tricked into servitude by her college roommate, Giselle, a powerful witch. Giselle took Max out drinking one night and got her to admit that it would be great to be strong and immortal. When Max woke up a month later, she was a Shadowblade under Giselle's control and destined never to see her human family again. Max took her name from the title character of the movie, Mad Max, because she felt a strong sense of identification with its fearless, headstrong protagonist. That was in 1979. During the early years, Max ran away time and time again, but she was always pulled back to Giselle by the compulsion spell. Each time Max returned, Giselle tortured her and bound her even more tightly. Here, Max reminisces: "Time after time, she'd lain on Giselle's altar while the witch pushed her to the brink of death and insanity, until Max inevitably broke and Giselle was free to etch her spells into Max's flesh, bone, and soul. Each time Giselle was driven to greater effort. Each time it took longer and more pain for Max to break. She'd learned to embrace the agony, to savor its mouth-full-of-salt corrosion and welcome its hot, caustic touch seeping through her entrails and burning through her heart. She began to draw a perverse strength from it. The pain reminded her of who she was." (Bitter Night, p. 100)

     The end result is that Max hates Giselle with a passion and lives for the day that she can kill Giselle. An even more important result is that Max has become incredibly strong—both mentally and physically—and is able to embrace pain in a way that makes her even stronger. Her special Shadowblade talent is that she can break through any type of lock—even a lock on a magic spell. Giselle's territory is called Horngate and it's located in the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Max is Giselle's Prime Shadowblade, which means that she is in charge of all of Giselle's warriors, and they all worship her. Even though Max comes off as a tough, heartless bitch, she has that stereotypical heart of gold, and her warriors all know it. They fear Max's anger, but they admire her skills and know that she has their backs.

            BOOK 1:  Bitter Night             
     As the story begins, Giselle has had a vision and sends Max to check on a murder in the territory belonging to another witch (the evil Selange). Max finds a group of weird supernatural creatures who have killed some humans and are now torturing a Hag (an old woman with magical powers). When Selange's Shadowblades show up, Max stays hidden as she watches the Shadowblades kill the Hag's kidnappers, but then realizes that they plan to capture the Hag themselves. Max saves the Hag's life by giving up some of her blood and allowing the Hag to escape. Unfortunately, this little scene is witnessed by Selange's Prime, a good-looking Shadowblade named Alexander. Unlike Max, Alexander volunteered to become a Shadowblade. He grew up poor and abused and was taken in by Selange's beauty and promise of long life and power. That was back in 1904, and he has long since become disillusioned with Selange and her methods of feeding on the pain and anguish of others. At the huge witches' Conclave the next day, Selange challenges Giselle for sending Max to invade her territory, forcing an endurance contest between the two Primes: Max and Alexander. When Max wins, Alexander is claimed by Giselle. 

     Meanwhile, several seers have predicted that a global supernatural apocalypse is imminent, stirred up by the Guardians of the earth, who are the most powerful and mean spirited of all the supernaturals. Here is Giselle's description of what is to come: "...the Guardians will raise armies. They will unleash a maelstrom of magic so that the earth itself strikes against humanity. They mean to slaughter most of the people and let magic return to the world. They have already begun. Hurricanes, fire, volcanoes, floods, droughts, earthquakeshave you noticed how many disasters have been happening recently? These aren't random or global warming. They are the first feints of battle. They mark the wrenching open of doors to all the places where the creatures of magic have gone to hide from human encroachment. All the creatures of the Uncanny and Divine are being summoned to fight, and the witches will be their generals. They will not allow anyone to sit safe on the sidelines. The devastation will be unimaginable." (p. 76)

     Each Guardian tries to coerce as many witches as possible to join his side, and if a witch refuses, punishment arrives in the form of the Guardian's enslaved angel, who burns down the witch's territory with magic angelfire and kills the witch's minions. The story follows Max as she tries to keep Giselle alive during these troubled times. A secondary story thread follows the development of a romantic relationship between Max and Alexander that doesn't go beyond a few passionate kisses in this book. The story arc for the series will follow Max and Alexander through the Guardians' wars. The emotional theme for the series is the importance of friendship, loyalty, and honesty, as Max's honor and her allegiance to Horngate and its people prove to be key elements in their survival.

     Book 1, naturally enough, spends a great deal of time on world building. The mythology is fresh and inventive and well developed. Max is the stereotypical damaged heroine with a good heart that she hides under a tough and profane exterior. She is portrayed as a multi-weaponed superheroine who rarely fails at any task and doesn't make any wrong decisions (risky and reckless, but never stupid). Max is always ready with a scornful verbal jab—at both friends and enemies—classic defensive behavior. The saving grace that moves Max's character a step beyond stereotype is the way that the author places her in a position that forces her to choose between freedom for herself (which has always been her ultimate goal) and the survival of her fellow warriors—and Horngate itself, which has been her home for so many years. Alexander does not have Max's strength, and he's definitely not a risk taker like she is. He allows her to take the lead and is rather passive, for the most part. One criticism I have about Alexander is that he speaks in that stilted no-contractions manner that some authors use to simulate formal language but which just turns out to be annoying and quite unnatural. The other warriors are mostly one-dimensional in this book. 

     One last warning: The violence level—particularly in book 1—is extremely high, with lots of brutal, bloody, graphic battle scenes (e.g., severing spinal cords, beheadings). In one scene, a witch casts a spell that causes sewer rats to materialize inside a character's stomach and then force their way out—all graphically described by the victim. Here's a sample: "Agony rippled through him. He bucked against the floor. Pain burned in his back and abdomen and he felt digging and tearing as the things sought a way out. They pushed and nuzzled, gnawed and clawed. He screamed again, his head cracking against the floor. He looked down at himself. his stomach lumped and then his skin split. a bloody, whiskered snout protruded through. A blood-slicked head followed." (This scene goes on for another page.) (p. 123) It reminds me of that famous chestburster scene in the classic science fiction horror movie, Alien. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Bitter Night.

            Book 2:  Crimson Wind             
     The second book begins a month after book 1 ends, and Max and Giselle are in the early days of a temporary truce. As the story begins, Max can't get any sleep because the demigod with whom she made a bargain in the previous book, wants her to come to him and keep her promise. Max has nicknamed him "Scooter," and she describes him as a "homicidal godlet." (p. 11) Max's first adventure in this book is to visit Scooter and make it clear that she must rescue her family from the apocalypse (which has just begun) before she can fulfill the terms of their agreement. That meeting goes about as badly as you would expect. In the meantime, Alexander is confronted by a witch who has had a vision that he will get the thing he most dearly wants and that he will become Prime. The prophecy worries Alexander because if he becomes Prime, that must mean that Max is destined to die, and Alexander definitely doesn't want that to happen. The primary plot follows Max and Alexander as they head off to California to rescue her family. Their romantic relationship continues to be rocky as Alexander presses Max for acceptance of their mutual attraction while she continues to put him off, hiding behind her fear of trust and commitment. 

     The couple's first stop is in Portland, where a friend from Alexander's past brings him a magical amulet that allows him to become invisible and to walk in the sun. Obviously, the amulet will play a key role in future events. Then, they head for California, only to run into a volcanic eruption of a red mist that is made up of wild magic—the first stage of the Guardians' apocalypse. Wherever the red mist falls, the land turns chaotically and menacingly fertile and many magical (and hungry) creatures—both plant and animal—lie in wait for unsuspecting passers-by. Max and Alexander must fight their way through this magical land, fighting off lots of creepy critters along the way. This is the most fantasy-heavy part of the series so far.

     Just when they think they're safe, the couple is kidnapped by another witches' warriors, and they wind up having to rescue a damaged coven. As the couple moves from adventure to adventure, they rescue quite a few people, all of whom Max sends back to the safety of Horngate. The climax of the book comes when Max and Alexander reach her family's farm and are forced to save them from a dense magical fog filled with shadowy, vicious, carnivorous shape shifters. Max's initial homecoming scene is heartbreaking as she confronts family members who believe she has been dead for 30 years, and she has a particularly agonizing moment when she discovers that some of them had knowledge that could have saved her from her servitude to Giselle. The book ends in a cliffhanger, but the next book will be out at the end of this month, so we don't have long to wait to find out what will happen next to Max and her friends.

     Book 2 is much heavier on the romance than book 1, but it still has lots of action, angst, and annihilation. Max continues to be by far the most prominent character, with Alexander protecting her back and offering her love that she's not sure she wants. The author makes a point of having Max poke fun at Alexander's refusal to use contractions, so that didn't seem to be as big a problem as it was in book 1. All in all, this is a solid post-apocalyptic fantasy series. It's definitely not urban fantasy (no cities, no dark and gritty ambiance), but the heroine has many of the stereotypical urban fantasy characteristics: foul mouth, sardonic repartee, lots of weapons, distrust of close relationships, and overflowing feelings of guilt and rage. Book 2 is much better written than book 1. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Crimson Wind.

             BOOK 3:  Shadow City             
     This book follows two separate plot lines until they converge in the climactic battle scene that ends the book. The first follows Max, who has been traded to Scooter in exchange for the safety of Horngate. The second follows Alexander and the Blades as they defend Horngate against a newborn Fury. This book is, unfortunately, less successful than the previous one because the author falls into the stereotypical trap of putting Max into confrontations with all kinds of freakish supernatural creatures. Many unnecessary pages are wasted on lengthy and colorful descriptions of the various creatures as well as on the furnishings and architecture of the magical otherworldly city of Chadaré, the destination to which Scooter has Max transport them. 

     Max soon learns that Scooter needs her to help him retrieve his heart and other body parts, which have been stolen from him by the Korvad—the powerful and evil group of creatures who control Chadaré. As she fights off all of the strange and colorful creatures, she squeezes in just enough time to return to Horngate for some quick sex (FINALLY!) with Alexander and a change of clothing. In the meantime, Alexander is dealing with the fact that a Fury is about to erupt just outside Horngate. That Fury is the daughter of Alton, the evil witch who, in previous books, betrayed Gisele and allied with the Guardians to destroy Horngate. To increase his power, Alton sacrificed the life of his daughter, Cora, who is on the verge of returning to life as a lethal, vengeful Fury. Problematically, Cora is now totally mad, so her revenge will encompass everyone and everything in her pathmeaning Horngate and its inhabitants. As each story line plays out, lives are put on the line, and some are lost. 

     The book ends with the possibility that there is something that Max can do to revive some of her seemingly dead allies. Based on the strength of book 2, I was hoping for far more from this book. I think its lowest point was when Max teleported into a sumptuously furnished room in Chadaré and then (graphically) made use of the toilet. Ewww! Click HERE to read an excerpt from Shadow City.

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