Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3-4; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: Dutton
FAIR WARNING:These reviews contain spoilers for previous books.
The fifth book and the exciting conclusion to bestselling author Kelley Armstrong's "impossible-to-put-down" Cainsville series, in which she mixes hard-hitting crime writing with phenomenal world-building to create a brand of fiction all her own.
When Olivia Taylor-Jones found out she was not actually the adopted child of a privileged Chicago family but of a notorious pair of convicted serial killers, her life exploded. Running from the fall-out, she found a refuge in the secluded but oddly welcoming town of Cainsville, Illinois, but she couldn't resist trying to dig out the truth about her birth parents' crimes. She began working with Gabriel Walsh, a fiendishly successful criminal lawyer who also had links to the town; their investigation soon revealed Celtic mysteries at work in Cainsville, and also entangled Olivia in a tense love triangle with the calculating Gabriel and her charming biker boyfriend, Ricky. Worse, troubling visions revealed to Olivia that the three of them were reenacting an ancient drama pitting the elders of Cainsville against the mysterious Huntsmen with Olivia as the prize.
The set piece of Rituals is the love triangle: Liv, Gabriel and Ricky. Towards the end of Betrayals, the three made a pact to stick together, no matter what happens and no matter how much others try to goad them into turning on one another (which is how they wound up in this situation in the first place). They now know that they are the latest incarnations of three tragic figures from the magical past, each of whom made some truly bad choices, thus dooming all of them. (Read my review of Betrayals [below] for more information about this part of the mythology.)
Although the Tylwyth Teg and the Cŵn Annwn don't know it, Liv is in the process of making her romantic choice between Gabriel and Ricky, and she does it very early in this novel, so telling you that she chooses Gabriel isn't really a spoiler. Ricky is deeply hurt by Liv's decision, but he tries to pull himself together and maintain their "stick-together" pact, although with Ricky's volatile personality, there is always a sense that he may break the pact if he is pushed hard enough. Unfortunately, a new enemy is all too ready to do that pushing.
The scenes between Liv and Gabriel are wonderfully tender, while at the same time sad and humorous—all at the same time. Gabriel is such a damaged person that I wanted to cheer every time he reached out to trust Liv and to show love for her. I also felt sorrow for poor Ricky, who gets friendship instead of the life-long commitment that he wished for from Liv.
But let's get back to this new enemy that is mentioned in the publisher's blurb—a deadly supernatural force that insists on joining the Tylwyth Teg and the Cŵn Annwn as the third contestant for Liv's favors. While the other two groups rely on their champions (Gabriel and Ricky) to win over Liv, this new otherworldly threat—the bloodthirsty sluagh—relies on fear, violence, and deadly threats. As Patrick explains, "The sluagh—also called the darkness or the unforgiven—should not even be termed fae, but rather spirits. Dark and twisted spirits. It is said that they share a mission with the Cŵn Annwn, that the Huntsmen are tasked with claiming the souls of those who've wronged the fae, while the sluagh do the same for those who have wronged humans." But there's a major difference between the Cŵn Annwn and the sluagh: "The Huntsmen may not take all factors into consideration, but they know guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. The sluagh don't care about truth. This isn't a mission to them...It's a hunger. And a joy." Eventually, the sluagh story line reaches all the way back to the incident in Liv's childhood that triggered her parents' imprisonment, but this is not by any means a straightforward connection.
As Liv, Gabriel, and Ricky try to figure out who the sluagh are and what they want, they must also reckon with two of their mothers: Pamela (Liv's deceitful mother who is still in prison but is still powerful enough to meddle dangerously in their affairs) and Seanna (Gabriel's mother, who has abused him terribly all his life and now returns to do even more damage).
The plot is filled with diabolical twists and hairpin turns, but if you have read the previous novels, you should recognize several people and places from the past who turn up to complicate the present. Two new supernaturals also insert themselves into the action: Helia and Alexios, a mated pair of dryads who pop up early in the book and insist on helping Liv and Gabriel (whom they revere as Matilda of the Night and Gwynn ap Nudd, the king of the Tylwyth Teg—the faery King of Annwn). They also recognize and accept Ricky as Arawn, king of the underworld realm of Annwn and leader of the Wild Hunt, but they are definitely members of Team Gwynn. Their scenes add some lightness and humor to an otherwise very dark story line. At first, I feared that Armstrong had dumped these two into the plot as a deus ex machina device, but she weaves them into the action so well that they fit perfectly into the story arc.
This is a Halloween fun-house of a plot that teases you along, daring you to guess at what is going to happen next and then collapsing the floorboards under your feet (which, by the way, literally happens to some of the characters in this novel). Even when you think that the battle is about to be won and the conclusion is near, some of the unreliable and untrustworthy characters make more bad decisions, triggering dangerous events that threaten to destroy everyone. It's a wild ride to the finish! And that finish includes Liv's ultimate choice. Even though she's in Gabriel's bed, can she turn her back on Ricky? Will she choose to protect the Tylwyth Teg or the Cŵn Annwn or will she come up with her own unique solution? And will the two groups and the two men accept and live willingly with her choice?
This is one of the best series wrap-ups that I've read in a long time. Everyone gets a story-thread resolution—even most of the secondary characters—so we know what happens next for them (if they survive through to the end, that is). Yes, we lose some characters, because it wouldn't make sense to have all of the good guys survive, but Armstrong treats those deaths respectfully and fits them into the story beautifully. Even Lloergan, Ricky's hound, gets his very own story thread of resolution. By the time I finished the final chapter, I felt the satisfaction of having fitted the final piece into a million-piece jigsaw puzzle. Now I can see the whole picture, with no gaps and no forced-together pieces. Armstrong obviously planned this story arc meticulously down to the last detail, thus providing a magnificent reading experience for fans of this series.
I can't praise this series enough. It has everything I'm looking for in an urban fantasy: an innovative mythology, a fresh and exciting story arc, electrifying suspense, a complex and compelling love story, just the right amount of angst, and multi-layered primary and secondary characters (including the villains). And—lucky for us—this final novel ties it all up with a big, beautiful bow!
Click HERE to go to the Rituals page on Amazon.com where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.
Click HERE to go to a Character Guide for CAINSVILLE provided by Wicked Scribes. Click HERE to read my review of Armstrong's OTHERWORLD SERIES. Click HERE and HERE to read my two reviews of Bitten, the TV series based on OTHERWORLD.
PREQUEL: Cainsville Files (A Game App)
In this original interactive story, it’s up to you to explore the secretive town of Cainsville, gain the trust of its mysterious residents, dodge dangers both real and otherworldly, embark on a romance, and in the end, find justice.
In the Amazon.com Editorial Reviews of this book, Booklist calls it a “reverse Cinderella story,” and that’s exactly right. In the first few pages of the book, 24-year-old Olivia (Liv) Taylor-Jones is enjoying her luxurious, happy life, attending a charity dinner with her handsome and wealthy fiancé, James Morgan, and thinking about spending some quality time with him as soon as they get back to his place. As the only child of wealthy parents, Liv is well educated and able to devote much of her time to volunteering at a women's shelter in Chicago. In just a few weeks, she and James will marry and live happily ever after. But then, Liv's mother phones her, asking her to come straight home, and at that point, Liv’s wonderful life shatters into a million tragic pieces.
NOVEL 2: Visions
> Side Note: After I finished reading Visions, I looked up some of the Welsh words to see whether I had figured them out correctly, and in almost every case I had—just from the context and the explanations in the narrative. If you do decide to check out the definitions, click HERE or HERE for two different easy-to-use Welsh-to-English on-line dictionaries. Also, you can usually find the names of mythological beings on Wikipedia (e.g., bean nighe).
Gabriel is an exceedingly damaged man. He grew up alone, fending for himself most of the time because his mother, Seanna, was either stoned on drugs and alcohol or in bed with one of her many men. Seanna disappeared when Gabriel was only fifteen, and he’s been on his own ever since. Early in his life, he built a high wall around his emotions, and he has never let anyone inside. He has vowed never to put himself in the position of needing another person for any reason because he’s not sure that he would recover from being left alone once again. Here, Gabriel muses about his early years: “Life itself became a game, a con, a swindle. Not just against marks, but against everyone—from teachers to landlords to any person with the power to lock him up, either in jail or in a group home. He’d lived like a shark then, always moving, stop and perish.” (p. 233)
> Side Note: I just finished reading and reviewing Fearless, the third novel in James Elliott’s terrific PAX ARCANA series in which the hero’s friend uses the same metaphor to describe the hero—John Darling: a shark, who “stay[s] in constant motion, wandering and killing until they die.” John takes an entirely different, but equally entertaining, approach to dealing with long-term emotional fallout from the horrific events of his early years. Both John and Gabriel have the same lone wolf complex (although in John’s case that term is quite literal), and both find it difficult to let anyone get past their emotional shields. Click HERE to read my reviews of that series.Now, Gabriel locks himself away in a luxury high-rise condo stocked with food, weapons, and money: “Gabriel Walsh hadn’t sailed out of that life unscathed. The frightened and hungry kid who’d lived on the streets wasn’t gone. He was hiding up here, with his security blankets.” (p. 354) He lives entirely alone, never allowing anyone into his home. Gabriel enforces his self-inflicted isolation so strictly that even inviting Liv to his condo turns out to be so painful that he cancels the invitation while they are on the elevator just yards from his door. Gabriel’s behavior hurts Liv deeply, causing her to stalk away from him in a barrage of angry words.
Although there is a murder plot at the center of this novel, the real fascination is in the developing relationships among the characters as they get to know one another and begin to learn that they have been born to play roles in a world they never knew anything about…until now. Armstrong provides just enough new information to appease our curiosity temporarily, but she leaves us begging for more. I can’t say enough about Armstrong’s character building (and world-building, for that matter). By the end of Visions, we have a clear picture of all of the lead characters, and what a relief it is that they are so original, so realistic, and so very different from the usual one-dimensional, good-against-evil heroes and heroines who battle their way through most urban fantasy series. Of course, they are on the side of good, but which side is the “good” side? And is one side all good and the other all bad? No, I don’t think so. These are nuanced characters placed in an extremely ambiguous world that is built on centuries of cultural traditions, all of which they are unaware…for now at least. The Cainsville elders still have to reveal their true motives, as do the two mysterious men who try to coax Liv to their sides. This series just keeps getting better and better, and I can hardly wait for book 3!
NOVEL 3: Deceptions
Olivia Taylor Jones' life has exploded. She's discovered she is not only adopted, but her real parents are convicted serial killers. Fleeing the media frenzy, she took refuge in the oddly secluded town of Cainsville. She has since solved the town's mysteries and finds herself not only the target of its secretive elders but also her stalker ex-fiancé.
Visions continue to haunt her: particularly a little blond girl in a green sundress who insists she has an important message for Olivia, one that may help her balance the light and darkness within herself. Death stalks both Olivia and the two men most important to her as she desperately searches to understand whether ancient scripts are dictating the triangle that connects them. Will darkness prevail, or does Olivia have the power to prevent a tragic fate?
Armstrong once again tells her story from several perspectives, mostly in Liv's first-person voice, but also in a handful of third-person chapters written from the point of view of Gabriel, Tristan, Ricky, and Rose. Armstrong interweaves three key story lines in this book:
> The Men: The evolving relationship involving Liv, Ricky, and Gabriel—both in the folkloric past and in the real-life present—becomes more and more complex. Adding another level of difficulty to the situation is James Morgan, with his unwelcome attentions toward Liv. As the story unfolds, opposing factions put intense pressure on Liv to make an impossible choice. As various groups and individuals try to force her allegiance to one or the other, tragic events ensue.
> The Visions: Liv desperately needs to gain control over the unpredictable visions that sweep over her like massive seizures, taking her to other places and times. The visions cause her physical body to lose consciousness and her temperature to rise to feverish heights. But the visions also have a positive side because they are her only source of information about the mythology that is driving others to try to control her life. Much of the story focuses on Liv's gradual realization of the true identity of the little blond girl and the purpose of the visions. Even as she comes to understand the visions, she continues to dread their unexpectedness, their ferocity, and their aftereffects.
> The Parents: Liv's relationship with her birth parents, Pamela and Todd Larsen, takes a series of suspenseful and heartbreaking twists and turns. Early in the book, Liv finally has a face-to-face meeting with Todd, which brings back a flood of long-repressed childhood memories. By the end of the book, Liv has uncovered some shocking new information about her childhood that turns her world upside-down. This development leads to the truth about her parents' involvement in the Valentine murders—the serial killings that put them in prison decades ago.As the story opens, Liv and Gabriel are recovering from minor injuries suffered in the car crash that ended the previous book. In a milestone decision, Gabriel has moved Liv into his apartment during her recovery. In the first scene, three people contact them: Liv's ex-fiancé, James Morgan, who is still stalking her; Edgar Chandler, the villain behind the car crash/murder attempt, who wants to meet with them at the prison; and Pamela, Liv's birth mother, who also wants a meeting. As Liv and Gabriel continue their attempts to unravel the truth about the serial killings that were supposedly committed by Liv's birth parents, Gabriel finds himself in legal trouble—framed by an unknown malefactor for a murder he did not commit.
As the story advances, Liv's visions become much more frequent and intense, and some of them are truly frightening in their malicious savagery. Along with dealing with her visions, Liv has to deal with the men in her life. Liv loves both Ricky and Gabriel, but in different ways—at least that's what she thinks at first. But as she interacts with the two men and deals with the information from her visions, her feelings become much more complicated. Ricky is her lover, who always says and does exactly the right thing to calm her down and make her feel safe. Gabriel is her prickly, emotionally crippled friend, who promises he will never leave her and always comes up with a solution to her problems, although he is unable to provide any kind of emotional support. But "friendship" and "love" are points on a constantly fluctuating relationship continuum, and Liv's inner conflicts about her feelings for the two men remain unresolved (even though she tries to tell herself that she has made a major decision in the matter). I have to say that I have no idea how Armstrong is going to resolve these complicated relationships with all of their mythological baggage, and that makes waiting for the next book even harder than usual. Here are the basic facts about the men in Liv's life:
> James Morgan: As the story opens, James is more determined than ever to get Liv back through any means, no matter how violent or devious. James's story takes an unexpected turn in this book, resolving his relationship with Liv once and for all.
> Ricky Gallagher: Although Ricky's character sometimes comes across as too good to be true, he is certainly a solid, sexy rock for Liv to hang on to as her life takes some confusing and agonizing turns. I wish that Ricky's character was a bit more complex, but perhaps there are more layers still to be revealed. Although Liv's relationship with Ricky appears to be solid, I suspect that in future books Armstrong will be inserting a few bumps along their (so-far) smooth romantic path.
> Gabriel Walsh: Gabriel continues to struggle with his emotional demons as he attempts—and, frustratingly, fails—to show Liv his true feelings toward her. He berates himself for being unable to crack open the thick, impenetrable emotional shield he has built up to protect himself from being hurt when someone he allows himself to love inevitably leaves him behind—and he is certain that Liv will eventually turn away from him, because everyone else he has loved has done just that. At one point, Rose summarizes Gabriel's fears concerning Liv: "So it's not fear of rejection. It's fear that it won't work. That you'll drive her off. That in trying for more, you'll lose her completely." And Gabriel's inward response is, "I always do." The Liv-Gabriel relationship is not resolved by the time this story ends. More drama is definitely in the works.
> Liv: Positive traits: bright, perceptive, intuitive, and independent. Negative traits: can be cold-hearted, critical, and cynical—depending on the situation.
> Ricky: Positive traits: generally energetic, passionate, adventurous, active, visionary, and honorable. Negative traits: sometimes acts in haste, is easily frustrated, and can be ruthless in certain situations.
> Gabriel: Positive traits: symbolized by control, power, security, and discipline. Negative traits: has a tendency to be controlling, authoritative, and domineering.
> Tylwyth Teg: The "fair folk" of the Fae world. The elders of Cainsville belong to this group. (Click HERE for an audio pronunciation.)
> Cŵn Annwn: The Fae-related group that is affiliated with the baying hounds of the Wild Hunt. They are responsible for handing down justice to fae lawbreakers in this world (but not to humans, which is the reason that Liv's parents are in prison). (Click HERE for an audio pronunciation.)
> Mall-t-Nos (aka Matilda of the Night): a female figure from Welsh mythology. In this series, her role is very different from the one she plays in traditional folklore.
> Gwynn ap Nudd: In Welsh mythology, he is the king of the Tylwyth Teg—the faery King of Annwn. (Click HERE for an audio pronunciation.)
> Arawn: In Welsh mythology, he is the King of the underworld (aka otherworld) realm of Annwn and leader of the Wild Hunt. (Click HERE for an audio pronunciation.)
> boinne-fala: A Welsh phrase that literally means "a drop of blood." I couldn't find the term in any mythology or folklore sources, but the phrase is used to describe Liv and her parents, so I assume from context that the term refers to a mixed-blood Fae/human.
Click HERE to go to the Deceptions page on Amazon.com where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.
NOVEL 4: Betrayals
When Olivia's life exploded—after she found out she was not the adopted child of a privileged Chicago family but of a notorious pair of convicted serial killers—she found a refuge in the secluded but oddly welcoming town of Cainsville, Illinois. Working with Gabriel Walsh, a fiendishly successful criminal lawyer with links to the town, she discovered the truth about her parents' crimes in an investigation that also revealed the darker forces at work in the place that had offered her a haven. As if that wasn't enough, she also found out that she, Gabriel and her biker boyfriend Ricky were not caught in an ordinary sort of love triangle, but were hereditary actors in an ancient drama in which the elders of Cainsville and the mysterious Huntsmen who opposed them had a huge stake.
Now someone is killing street kids in the city, and the police have tied Ricky to the crimes. Setting out with Gabriel's help to clear Ricky's name, Olivia once again finds her own life at risk. Soon the three are tangled in a web of betrayals that threatens their uneasy equilibrium and is pushing them toward a hard choice: either they fulfill their destinies by trusting each other and staying true to their real bonds, or they succumb to the extraordinary forces trying to win an eternal war by tearing them apart.
Please note that this is the fourth novel in a series that is based on a complex story arc that Armstrong began building in the first novel, so I recommend that you don't try to read Betrayals as a standalone. If you haven't read the previous novels, you will get lost in the intricacies of the mythology, and you won't have the knowledge about past events and characters that you need in order to fully appreciate the nuances of the story told in this book.
Let's get the relationship issue out of the way first since it is at the center of the series story arc. (Beware of SPOILERS ahead for the previous novel!) Now that Liv, Gabriel, and Ricky have learned that they are the modern-day stand-ins for three tragic fae figures from the past, they are determined not to make the same mistakes that those long-ago lovers made. In this book, we see Gabriel finally begin to open up to Liv about his feelings and we watch Liv begin to realize his deep feelings for her. Meanwhile, Ricky—who also loves Liv deeply—makes a painful decision to keep his romantic impulses under control and to always act in Liv's best interest, even when her best interest doesn't mesh with his dreams for their future. (I know that this sounds as if I'm talking in circles, but I don't want to spoil Ricky's story line for you.) Even though the romance situation seems to be settled near the end of the book, the final scene suggests that there is more to come on the romantic front.
Here's how Liv describes the two men: "Gabriel is that moment before a storm when everything seems preternaturally calm but you can feel the electricity in the air, and know you'll get no exact warning when danger and destruction comes. Ricky is as warm and calm as a summer's day, and while there can be storms, you'll get plenty of warning, and it'll be a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, passing quickly, the sun blazing bright again." Liv loves them both, but has committed to neither. She adores the excitement and sensuality of life with Ricky, but when she finally coaxes a rare smile from Gabriel, she thinks that "winning that smile is like acing my SATs and running a marathon all in the same day."
The primary story line focuses on a group of lamiae, fae creatures who hide their true snake characteristics behind human glamours. The lamiae are succubi who need sexual energy to survive, so they are living on the streets as prostitutes. The girls come to Liv's attention first in a violent vision in which two of them are murdered. Then, the police take Ricky in for questioning about the disappearance of a man and the murder of a woman, both of whom have connections to the lamiae. As Liv, Ricky, and Gabriel investigate the case, Liv continues to drift in and out of visions, sometimes dragging Ricky or Gabriel into her spiritual visits to other times and realms. The investigation soon turns up a suspect—a rogue fae who has confiscated one of the Hounds of the Hunt. As the intrepid trio gets closer and closer to the truth and to their suspect, suspense builds and danger lurks everywhere—from desolate, abandoned tunnels to deep, dark forests.
Meanwhile, the Cŵn Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg are both still trying to persuade the three to take their rightful places:
> Gabriel as Gwynn ap Nudd, the king of the Tylwyth Teg—the faery King of Annwn
> Ricky as Arawn, king of the underworld realm of Annwn and leader of the Wild Hunt.
> Olivia as Mall-t-Nos—Matilda of the Night—the bride of one of the two men. Her genetic heritage has given her a mixture of Cŵn Annwn and Tylwyth Teg blood.Patrick (Gabriel's father, although Gabriel doesn't know it) is the spokesman for Cainsville's Tylwyth Teg, and Ioann (Ricky's grandfather) is the spokesman for the Cŵn Annwn. Each wants his champion—Gwynn or Arawn—to accept his mythological role and hook up with Matilda because, "Whichever side possesses Matilda will win the battle for survival...The champions do battle for the hand of the maiden, and the winning side takes all, gaining the most precious gift for the fae: the power to survive in the modern world." Liv sums up the current situation: "We've decided we don't particularly like our roles. Gabriel isn't the jealous and treacherous Gwynn. Ricky isn't the reckless and impetuous Arawn. And I'm sure as hell not the hapless and helpless Matilda."
The titular betrayals occur on more than one level and in more than one of the story threads. You might recall that Gabriel has a history of betraying Liv, and that is why their relationship is civil rather than friendly as the novel begins. But at this point in the story, Liv is keeping a secret from Gabriel and she is afraid that he will react badly when she finally comes clean about his parentage. And then, of course, Gabriel can't help but betray Liv again just one more time. Other betrayals occur in the murder mystery story line. And let's not forget Liv's mother, who tried to frame Gabriel for murder in the previous book. She is a longtime betrayer who remains opposed to Liv's friendship with Gabriel, so she is still a danger.
Armstrong has taken all of this mythology, intrigue, and angst and created a marvelous novel that contains enough compelling action, spine-tingling suspense, and fully developed characters to keep you reading it straight through in one sitting—which is exactly what I did last night. At this point, I think that I can see where Armstrong is headed with the romance, but the very last scene raises a red flag because anything can happen when Liv and Ricky go off on their own together. Plus, Gabriel has been building his mile-high, stone-hard, anti-relationship wall around himself all his life, so I can't help but wonder if he has the ability to continue to be emotionally available to Liv—even if he truly wants to. Here is an illustration of the distance Gabriel places between himself and everyone else: In one scene, Liv requests Gabriel's permission to ask him a personal question. When he agrees, she asks him about the fireplace in his office, and Gabriel is astounded, protesting that that is not a personal question. Liv replies "Sometimes, with you, I think 'Would you like fries with that' is too personal."—which is my favorite humorous line in the book.
To sum things up, whatever happens next, it can't happen soon enough for me. Click HERE to go to the Betrayals page on Amazon.com where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.