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Friday, January 20, 2012


Author: M.L.N. Hanover (pseudonym for Daniel Abraham)
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence--4-5; Sensuality--3; Humor--2-3
Publisher and Titles: Pocket
         Unclean Spirits (2009)
         Darker Angels (2009)
         Vicious Grace (2010)
         Killing Rites (2011)
         Graveyard Child (2013)

    This post was revised and updated on 6/29/13 to include a review of the fifth book of this series, Graveyard Child. That review appear first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first four books

            BOOK 5:  Graveyard Child           
     Finally, after a two-year wait we have the fifth book in this solid urban fantasy series. First off, I want to caution readers that this book will probably not work as a stand-alone read because it relies so heavily on past events and characters. 

      In chapter 1, Jayné and her two trusty companions (Ex and Chogyi Jack) head for Jane's hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Of course, one of the first things Jayné learns is that the saying "You can't go home again" is absolutely true—in the sense that once you leave home for any length of time, both you and "home" change so much that you are unable to regain your former relationship when you return. Jayné does rejoin her family—briefly and painfully—but she has to face the fact that they (especially her father) don't want anything to do with her.

     Just before Chapter 1, a Prologue presents a scene in which a young, pregnant woman is confronted by a tattooed man who questions her about her soon-to-be in-laws—particularly her groom's sister, Jayné Heller. When you combine this little scene with the fact that one of the reasons Jayné has returned to Wichita is to attend the wedding of her older brother and his pregnant fiancée, you can infer that some of Jayné's enemies are out to get her and that her family has somehow become part of their threat. This inference proves to be true almost immediately when three armed, tattooed strangers burst into Jayné's childhood home just after she and her friends arrive. Obviously, the strangers are part of the Invisible College, the enemies that Jayné thought she had eliminated in an earlier book when she killed their leader, Randolph Coin.

     The plot follows Jayné and her team as they attempt to figure out what's going on, particularly when the strangers kidnap the pregnant bride and use her as bait in a trap for Jayné. Meanwhile, a new villain emerges as the greatest, most powerful enemy Jayné has ever faced, and to make the situation even more horrific, he is "riding" one of the members of her family.

     This book is a real page-turner, with non-stop, compelling action and lots of twists and turns in the plot. Jayné's relationships with her team and particularly with her family are front and center all the way through. She learns the shocking details of her mother's connection with her Uncle Eric and discovers that Eric may have been more of a victim than a villain. The scenes between Jayné and her father are heart-breaking as he coldly rejects her, telling her that she is no longer a member of the family because, "You're lost to Satan." (p. 175)

     By the climactic ending, Jayné's beliefs about her life, her family, her enemies, and her powers are all upended in one way or another. Her feelings for Ex are still developing, but her relationship with Aubrey is definitely at a just-friends stage as he remains in Chicago with his wife, Kim, turning up only once in a telephone conversation.

     In this book, Jayné discovers most of the information she needs to understand her life and how she got to be the way she is. A bit more research is needed, though, and as the book ends, the team heads back to Denver to search through centuries of Eric's records. 

    As the series opens, an organization called the Invisible College controls the magical world. Led by the evil and powerful Randolph Coin, the College specializes in harnessing demonic spirits, called riders. Every seven years, the College holds a ceremony in which a new crop of humans is infected with riders—all of whom are loyal to Coin and the College. The demonic spirits are like parasites, with each one staying in its human host body until that body dies. Then, it searches out another body to inhabit. 

     Here is one character's explanation of the process: "...all the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties you've ever heard of really exist. Vampires, werewolves, zombies. People doing magic....Well...a lot of it is about demons. Or spirits or loa or whatever you want to call them. Seelie Court, Unseelies, Court Radha, Petro, Ghede. Ifrit. Hungry ghosts. All kinds of them. The generic term's riders. They get inside a person, and they change them. Make them do things, make them want to do things. Give them freaky powers. Normal people who've got a feel for it and the right trainingcall 'em wizards or witches...they can do some pretty weird shit, but nothing compared to what riders are capable of." (Unclean Spirits, p. 28)

     This series has a strong beginning, lags a bit in books 2 and 3, and then makes a great come-back in book 4. The primary reason for the weakness of the middle two books is the lack of growth in the main character. From the series title, we know that we're eventually going to learn that Jayné is much more than human, but we don't get even the slightest hint of the meaning of "Black Sun's Daughter" until book 4. This is a long wait and seems to be a case of poor series structure on the author's part. 

     In book 1, Jayné's character is clearly drawn, with her unhappy family background affecting her life decisions and her emotional reactions even when she believes that she has put her right-wing, fundamentalist father behind her for good. Unfortunately, for the first three books, her character is stuck in a morass of adolescent pique and immature thinking. This is glaringly apparent because all of the supporting charters are a decade or more older and are mostly more mature and way better educated about the supernatural world than she is. Most of the members of Jayné's team are lightly sketched in the first three books, but in book 4, we finally get some gritty details about Ex's history with the Catholic Church and why he left the priesthood. So far we know next to nothing about Midian and Chogyi Jake (who just smiles enigmatically all the time). We do learn much of Aubrey's story in the early books, and his love-triangle situation with Jayné and Kim is nicely nuanced in books 1 and 3.  

     The plots are generally well constructed and move along at a fast clip. Hanover is extremely good at establishing a sense of place. In Unclean Spirits, I could almost feel the sweat running down my back as I read the description of a blazing hot August day in Denver. Here are some outstanding examples: 

     A lovely description of twilight in New Mexico: "Snow caught every ray of light from moon or star, glowing blue. The black-barked trees were like cuts in the world with the darkness behind everything showing through. The few bits of light and colorthe yellow of a lit window, the single red eye of a truck's unbroken taillightonly served to make everything seem bleaker: Ansel Adams meets H. P. Lovecraft.") (Killing Rites, p. 312)

     A disturbingly organic description of a New Orleans neighborhood several years after Katrina: “I had the sense of walking into a tendril of dead city, as if the destruction of the Lower Ninth had cut a blood vessel, and even here where the city hadn’t suffered the flood, its tissue was dying.” (Darker Angels, p. 249)

    The voice of Jayné's lawyer: “She spoke with careful enunciation so sharp I imagined all the words being relieved that they’d gotten out alive.” (Darker Angels, p. 26)

     Just an FYI: In several books, Jayné calls things “little tomato.” For example, in Darker Angels, she addresses a bottle: “‘Well, little tomato,’ I said to the small black bottle, ‘I guess we’ll have to drink you warm.’” (p. 78). This quotation is connected with the band, Pink Martini, a cross-genre musical group formed in the 1990s in Portland, Oregon. Their second album is entitled, “Little Tomato.” This musical reference also explains Jayné's favorite t-shirt. It's Jayné's favorite band, and she listens to their music all the time. You'll find many reference to Pink Martini in these books.

            BOOK 1:  Unclean Spirits           
     As the first book begins, Eric Heller, a veteran demon fighter, believes that he is on the verge of destroying Coin, but his adventure ends tragically in the opening scene when he is killed by a gang of riders. When Eric's niece, Jayné (pronounced zha-nay', but usually mispronounced as Jayné) arrives in Denver to settle his estate, she learns that her Uncle Eric was an extremely wealthy man, with properties all over the world and a huge bank account—and Jayné is the sole heir. On her first day in Denver, Jayné checks out one of Eric's palatial apartments, where she finds Midian Clark, a desiccated, zombie-esque man who claims to be one of Eric's associates. Here's Jayné's description of Midian: "...he looked like something from Jim Henson's worst nightmare, his flesh ropey and dark and implausible." (p. 204) Midian explains that he is more than 200 years old and was cursed by Coin, who was in a different body back then. Midian tells Jayné the story of Coin and the College and suggests that Coin's riders probably killed Eric. 

     By now, Jayné is beginning to think that she has stepped into a really bad dream. She plans to call the police and have them go after Coin and then leave Denver to scout out the rest of Eric's estate. Jayné's plans change, however when several riders break into the apartment and try to kill both her and Midian. At this point, Jayné begins to believe that Midian's story might actually be true. During the battle with the riders, Jayné unexpectedly finds herself fighting like a ninja—a skill that she never had before—and she and Midian manage to kill all of the attackers. In the aftermath, Jayné calls Aubrey, Eric's assistant, to help them clean up the mess, and he brings two more of Eric's associates to the scene: Xavier (aka Ex), a former Jesuit, and Chogyi Jake, a mystical Buddhist. The four unlikely companions try to give Jayné a better idea of Eric's life and eventually they form a team so that they can complete Eric's final mission to take down Coin. 

     The plot focuses on Jayné and her cohorts as they strategize, carry out plans, fail, and try again. They teach Jayné a bit of basic magic and give her some weapons training. Along the way, they help a woman get rid of a rider that has possessed her fiancé. In the romance department, Jayné and Aubrey are attracted to one another, but she soon discovers that there is an impediment to their relationship. There also seems to be a spark of interest between Jayné and Ex

            BOOK 2:  Darker Angels           
     This book begins six months after the end of book 1, just as Jayné and her crew are hired by a former FBI agent, Karen Black, to help her track down a loa rider that once possessed a serial killer, Joseph Mfume, but is now in New Orleans causing more trouble. When Jayné, Aubrey, Ex, and Chogyi Jake arrive in New Orleans, the rider immediately attacks Jayné in the form of an old Black woman who demands, “What the hell you think you doing in my city?” (p. 34) Then, she turns into a huge snake and tries to take a big bite out of Jayné. Just as the battle is getting dicey, Karen Black turns up and saves the day. Karen explains that the loa rider that attacked Jayné is planning to kill a young girl—the granddaughter of the human it possesses (who, by the way, is called a horse—demonic spirit rides human horse, get it?). 

     Eventually, the group decides to kidnap the girl and take her to their rented house so that they can save her life. From the beginning, Karen assumes control of the group, a situation that causes mixed feelings for Jayné. On the one hand, Jayné is relieved to hand over the responsibility to this experienced monster fighter. On the other hand, Jayné likes to have a hand in logistical decisions and hates seeing her position usurped. When Jayné learns that Karen and Ex have become lovers, her reactions are even more mixed, particularly after Chogyi Jake tells Jayné that Ex has feelings for her. Early on, Karen leads part of the team into a dangerous confrontation with a powerful and hostile loa, resulting in a life-changing experience for one of Jayné's group. Soon, Ex turns his back on his friends—just as he did back in book 1—but this time, he’s determined to help Karen, not Jayné. 

     As the climax approaches, Jayné realizes that Karen has not told the truth about a lot of things. After consulting with her remaining team members, Jayné decides that they are going to have to work with their enemies if they are to resolve the case. In a climactic scene at the end, Jayné and her new allies battle the evil loa rider with the help of some good (i.e, non-evil) riders. The fact that some riders may be good is a new concept for Jayné and her crew. In this book, Jayné continues to demonstrate physical powers far beyond her meager training, and no one is really sure why she has them or where they came from.

            BOOK 3:  Vicious Grace           
     This story is filled with Haitian vodou mythology, particularly the loas Legba and Carrafour—the good and evil (day and night) keepers of the crossroads. The themes of this story are “be careful who you trust” and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” By the end of the story, Jayné is once more at the head of her team. She's still sleeping with Aubrey, but remains friends with Ex. (is there a law somewhere that requires a love triangle in every UF series? Just wondering.) The villain in this book is pretty easy to spot, even though the author has tried to camouflage himor heror it (To prevent a spoiler, I won't be specific as to gender or species). Other than that, I have only two criticisms. First is the the romantic triangle, which is getting kind of old already. Second, everyone else on the team has advanced skills in magic, but, so far, Jayné doesn't seem to be learning much in that area. That makes her seem like a weak heroine, since she has only her unpredictable physical skills to turn to when she is confronted by a rider. Here's where logic flies out the windowbecause although she gets one major injury per book, she defeats every rider and wins every battle. We need more informationand sooner is better.  

     As the third book opens, Jayné and her team are at a survivalist camp in Montana getting some training in weapons use and self-defense when Jayné receives a call for help from Kim, Aubrey's ex-wife. A year has passed since Jayné first went to Denver to settle Uncle Eric's estate, and she has spent those 12 months trying to live up to her heroic image of her uncle, the heroic, monster-fighting martyr. Kim lives in Chicago, where she works as a researcher and teacher at Grace Memorial Hospital in the field of parasitologythe study of parasites. Another member of the staff is working on a study of brain impulses during dreaming, and his sleep subjects are all having the same image show up in their dreams: a casket from which a demonic creature arises. Since Eric (and now Jayné) owns a luxurious condo in Chicago that the team needs to explore, they head right over. 

     Two plot threads wind through the story, both converging towards the end. First: When Jayné and Kim visit Grace Memorial, a group of seemingly normal people suddenly turn demonic and attack Jayné. This gets the team to thinking that there must be a rider involvedthis time it's a leyiathan (sometimes called a leviathan). (Remember, a "rider" is a demonic spirit that possesses a human "horse.") Second: Some incriminating information surfaces that seems to prove that Eric wasn't the altruistic battler for good that everyone thought he was. This second situation causes some big changes in the Jayné/Aubrey/Kim triangle. Here's Jayné as she muses about Uncle Eric: "...I'd made him into the hero of my own private comic book. Eric Heller, gentleman adventurer: Force for good. Decent human being. It hadn't had anything to do with the real man." (p. 326) The climax puts Jayné into an appallingly shocking situation that forces her into actions that will give her nightmares for years to come.

     Book 3 is much more mystical and dense than the first two books, and this is not necessarily a good thing. Even the actual identity of the villainous rider is still somewhat unclear to me. Jayné is constantly getting baffled by her buddies' technical language, and I have to say I was frequently confused right along with her. The same criticism that I made for book 2 holds true here. Jayné has had a whole year to learn about magic, and she has a talented team who could teach her, but Jayné seems not to have learned anything more than she knew back in book 1. Her physical strength in battle is growing stronger, but not in any predictable or understandable way. By the end of the book, she is pretty sure that she isn't quite normal. Jayné is the youngest of the cast of characters by 15-20 years, and her immaturity constantly shows up in her self-focused behavior and her poor decision-making. We would have been better served, I think, if all the characters were in the same age range.

            BOOK 4:  Killing Rites           
     In this bookJayné finally takes charge of her own life. She and Ex head for New Mexico for a consultation with Ex's former colleaguesexorcists for the Catholic Church. Early in the story, Jayné saves the day for the priests when a demon they are trying to exorcise breaks loose and attacks them. After she vanquishes that demon, with the help of her own rider, Jayné is sure that her rider is good, and not evil as she feared. But the priests are zealots who believe that all demons are bad, and they insist (forcibly) that hers must be banished. 

     At this point, Jayné escapes and goes off on her ownfor the very first time in the seriesand this is like a breath of fresh air. She thinks things through, makes her own decisions, and acts on them in a confidant manner, even though she has fears and anxieties while she's doing it. In other words, she acts like a grown-up intelligent womanfinally. In this book, Ex, Midian, and Chogyi Jake join in Jayné's adventures, but Chogyi Jake doesn't show up until close to the end, and Midian's appearance is brief. 

     By the end of the book, we have some idea of the meaning of the series title, but not many details. The ending is a moderate cliff-hanger as Jayne makes another executive decision as to where she will go next and who she will ask for more information. In the romance department, things are still off with Aubrey since he's still with Kim, and nothing much develops in this book between Ex and Jayné.

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