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Friday, April 27, 2012


Author:  Debbie Viguié
Plot Type:  Police Procedural/Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor1 
Publisher and Titles:  Signet
          The Thirteenth Sacrifice (4/2012)
          The Last Grave (3/2013) 
          Circle of Blood (4/2014) (FINAL ??)
     This post was revised and updated on 4/24/14 to include a review of Circle of Blood, the third (and possibly final) 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:  Circle of Blood            
     Samantha Ryan has left San Francisco and Salem far behind. As the book opens, she has travelled to New Orleans, hot on the trail of the witch who has been manipulating her and causing so much magical trouble in her life. In the past, we have known the heroine as both Samantha Castor and Samantha Ryan, but now she calls herself Desdemona Castor and has shoved her "Samantha" personality far to the back of her mind. Samantha let Desdemona loose when she opened her twelfth dream door against the advice of all of her younger selves. (NOTE: This book should not be read as a stand-alone. For an explanation of the dream doors, read my review of The Last Grave below.) At this point, [Desdemona] was…running the show. Samantha had opened that door back in the cemetery in Salem because she thought she needed the other girl's knowledge, insight. Instead, she had let loose a monster." (p. 102)

     Desdemona is the opposite of Samantha in almost every way. Desdemona revels in her witchy powers and kills anyone who gets in her way. On the other hand, Samantha has renounced her witch powers and lays her life on the line to protect others. "Desdemona had finally been freed. The irony was, just as Samantha had not remembered a great deal of her childhood, shutting out the memories, so Desdemona had tried to block memories from her teen and adult years that belonged to Samantha." (p. 9) It is obvious from the start that one of Desdemona/Samantha's major tasks will be to embrace both parts of herselfthe good and the bad; the witchy and the human. 

     In the early chapters, Desdemona is definitely in charge as she deliberately and ruthlessly suppresses the frantic shouts of advice and warning that come from Samantha's part of her mind. "She wouldn't listen; she couldn't. That other self was weak, foolish, afraid." (p. 17) Desdemona is determined to find and kill Lilith Black, the villainous witch who has summoned hundreds of other witches to New Orleans so that she can drain their powers and do unspeakable things with it to benefit her own nefarious goals. As Desdemona sets out to find Lilithwithout a plan and with no back-upshe bungles her way into one TSTL moment after another, mostly because she refuses to listen to Samantha's desperate warnings coming from the back of her mind.  

     So...Desdemona considers Samantha to be a weak and worthless person and sees herself as a powerful and indestructible witchwrong on both counts. We know from the beginning that the author will not allow Desdemona to do away with Samantha completely because Samantha is the series heroine, and heroines are not brutal, heartless killers. Needless to say, Desdemona/Samantha has a moment of epiphany about a third of the way into the novel and begins the process of melding her two halves into one complete person with a little help from some friends. As she fights desperately to get her mind under control, she finally remembers everything about her past, including the details of that fateful day when her mother and the rest of her coven died during a demon summoning. That part of the story has few surprises because Samantha has been remembering flashes of her past throughout the first two novels.  

     The action part of the plot focuses on the search, capture, and execution of the evil Lilith Black, which turns out to be a bit too neatalmost anticlimactic.  The author even drops a deus ex machina trope into the plot just in time to rescue Samantha and her friends from certain death. Problematically, Lilith's motivations for targeting Samantha and seeking to destroy the world were not entirely clear to me. Yes, the two do have a Salem connection, but really, the only type of person who would go to the lengths to which Lilith has gone has to be a sociopathic monsterand that's always really boring in a villain. Although the author tries to portray Lilith sympathetically at one point, the witch soon shows herself to be the stereotypical, power-mad lunatic we have seen too many times before. Another familiar trope is a scene involving a hoodoo woman who lives deep in the bayous: rickety shack, brackish waters, spooky mist, dead animals hanging from the ceiling, wizened old womanit's like something Disney would dream up is DisneyWorld had a voodoo/hoodoo island in the Magic Kingdom.

     Although the plot is relatively well constructed, there is one big hole. On page 153, Samantha warns two women that Lilith is planning to summon a demon to New Orleans: "If you've heard that she's planning on raising a demon here, I would think it's a safe bet she's trying to....This will be a monster that kills, destroys everything in its path." Then, on page 233, as Samantha is trying to figure out why Lilith is making a huge grab for power, she has an epiphany: "Lilith had to have some…plan….Samantha blinked. Demons….Was it possible that there trapped here?" How can Samantha tell someone that Lilith is planning to summon a demon almost 100 pages before she realizes it herself? 

     I'm guessing that this is the final book in the series because it ties up all of the loose ends, including some important facts about Samantha's father; sets up a reunion with her former partner, Ed Hofferman; and reignites a blossoming love affair with her boyfriend, Anthony Charles. She even learns her real namethe one bestowed on her when she was born (which means that she now has four different names). To read an excerpt from this book, click HERE to go to this book's page. Then click on the cover art.    

     In this world, the only supernatural beings (so far) are witches, some of whom have terrifying powers. The series heroine is Samantha Ryan (aka Samantha Castor), a powerful witch who comes from a long line of practitioners of black magic. When Samantha was still a child, her family and coven members were all slaughtered during a demon summoning that went horribly wrong. Samantha was the only survivor, and she has tried very hard to put her witchy past far behind her. Shortly after her family’s massacre, Samantha was adopted by a friendly, normal couple and raised to be a practicing Christian who finds comfort in the cross she wears around her neck at all times. As the series opens, Samantha's memories of her family’s tragedy are incomplete. She has frequent nightmares about that night and a few spotty memories surface from time to time.

            BOOK 1:  The Thirteenth Sacrifice           
     Set in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, the opening book introduces Samantha and her tragic past with the usual overload of expositional information. Samantha is now a Boston police detective and as the story begins, she and her partner, Ed Hofferman, are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman whose forehead sports a red pentagram, which turns out to have been traced with nail polish, not blood. As more pentagram-bearing bodies turn up, they trigger some of Samantha’s repressed memories, and she is sure that these crimes are somehow connected to witchcraft—specifically to the coven now practicing in Salem, her hometown and the site of the demonic massacre of her childhood.

     Samantha's boss asks her to go undercover in Salem. He wants her to join the coven and bring them down from within. Samantha is terrified at the prospect of opening up her mind and body to witchcraft after all these years. She’s afraid of its power and influence, and she wants only to be a “normal” person. Eventually, though, she gives in and heads for Salem, where she begins using her powers to attract the attention of the coven. The plot follows Samantha's adventures as she works her way into the coven and gains the confidence of its leader.

     Samantha's love interest in this book is Anthony Charles, who runs the Museum of the Occult in Salem and whose mother was killed in the same traumatic episode that claimed the lives of Samantha's family. In this book, their relationship is somewhat rocky (he tries to kill her at one point), but they become more friendly near the end, just before Samantha leaves for California. She is forced to leave her Boston PD job because now everyone knows that she is a witch and no one wants to work with her, not even her long-time partner.

     This is a solid enough story with an appropriately tortured heroine and a logical, police-procedural plot line with just the right amount of magical, witchy action. Once Samantha gets to Salem, she spends much of her time agonizing over the pull that dark magic has on her and praying that she can maintain her Christian principles when the investigation is completed. This is a common theme in urban fantasy: the heroine trying to balance black and white magic without being consumed by her own dark side. Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan in THE HOLLOWS and Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam in DOWNSIDE GHOSTS are prime examples. (Click on the series titles to read my reviews.) Both of those series are much stronger than this one, although this isn’t a terrible series by any means. At this point, I’d say that it’s middle of the road average, with plenty of room for improvement. In the next book, Samantha moves to San Francisco, so we’ll see what the witch situation is out on the Left CoastTo read an excerpt from this book, click HERE to go to this book's page. Then click on the cover art.

            NOVEL 2:  The Last Grave            
     The story begins three months after Samantha moves to San Francisco, where she is now working as a detective for the SFPD. In the opening scene, we get a snapshot of Samantha's new life as she has a demonic nightmare, is comforted by her roommate (Jill, a friend from her college years), and gets called to a homicide crime scene by her new partner, Lance Garris. The murder victim is Winona Lightfoot, a Native American historian whose body has been completely petrified. Samantha realizes immediately that a witch committed the murder, but she has to hide her suspicions from her human colleagues because she can't let them know anything about her witchy heritage. The rest of the story revolves around this murder.    

     The plot follows Samantha as she follows the clues and tries to solve the case. The most unbelievable part of the story is that Samantha spends most of the book roaming around the city, mountains, and forests all by herself, rarely accompanied by her partner. She keeps telling Lance that she's going off to follow up on something or other, and he keeps saying O.K.—not asking any questions about where she's going or what she's up to. This doesn't seem at all normal to me, particularly when Samantha's excursions rarely provide any information for the official police investigation. In fact, she usually gets into serious trouble—getting her car burned up by a lightning-throwing witch, being chased through a forest by that same witch, being attacked by trees—all of which she must lie about to her colleagues. I can't imagine that a police detective—particularly a newbie to the job—would be allowed to behave in such an independent, reckless, and non-productive manner.

     Samantha continues to try to avoid using her witchy powers, but eventually she has no choice. The crux of the story is based on a very familiar paranormal plot device: an attempt by the villain to awaken an ancient evil power. The villain's use of powerful dark magic forces Samantha to use her own magical talents to try to keep that ancient evil imprisoned. The ending is quite inventive, although it gets a bit woo-woo and hard to follow.

     In the first book and throughout this novel, Samantha has a series of dreamlike meetings with her younger self at various ages, and each "self" unlocks some long-repressed memories from her childhood. In book 1, she met with her herself at ages 5, 6, and 7. Now she meets herself at ages 812. This is how it works: She dreams of a hallway lined with doors. Each time she opens a door, one of her younger selves steps out and gives her advice about what to do next. After that, her memories of that year of her life return in a steady stream. This back-to-the-past gimmick worked (to a point) in the first book, but this time around it becomes rather awkward and unwieldy as a continuing plot device.

     This book is definitely not as strong as book 1. Samantha has turned into a weepy, wish-washy character who proceeds in an unplanned, impulsive manner and who has yet to face up to the fact that she has to stop pretending that she is not a witch. The resolution of the murder is somewhat confusing (I can't explain more without a spoiler), and that contributes to the weakness of the plot. I'll keep reading this series for now, though, in the hope that the next book will be stronger. To read an excerpt from this book, click HERE to go to this book's page. Then click on the cover art.

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