Series: THE PORTALS DUOLOGY
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—3; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: Harlequin Luna
Heart of Briar (8/2013)
As the series opens, the elves are suddenly able to open multiple portals between Elfland and the mortal world, and they are kidnapping humans right off the streets of the city. The local supers, led by A.J., a werewolf (aka lupin), and his handful of supernatural followers are trying to figure out what the elves are up to. The supers are a motley crew of beings who, for the most part, cannot pass for human—for example, ghost-like banshees (aka bansidhe), fanged vampires, and feathered owl shifters (aka Splyushka). Only a few can shift into an almost human form (e.g., Martin, the kelpie). This highlights one of the main problems with the mythology: the improbable and unbelievable idea that these obviously non-human beings are inconspicuously coexisting in the human world. How in the world can A.J. walk around the city incognito (which he does) based on this description:"Not a monobrow. Not a misshapen nose. This close and clear there was no denying that it was a real muzzle, short but obvious, with the jaw hinged oddly, coarse dark hair overrunning what would have been a hairline to trace down to the end of his nose. Round dark eyes set too far back....Not red, but she thought they would glow in firelight, a bright, dancing red. Like a wolf's." (Heart of Briar, p. 45)
The series heroine is Janice (Jan), an asthmatic, human web-site designer living in New Haven, Connecticut. As the series opens, she has never met a supernatural, but that soon changes. I have no problem with the inclusion of a physically challenged lead character, but the reality of the matter is that Jan's constant need to stop and take hits from her inhaler is an element of her character that soon becomes distracting.
NOVEL 1: Heart of Briar
The story follows Jan and Martin (and a few other supers) as they try to figure out why the elves have stepped up their kidnappings and how they are creating all these new portals. The relationship between Jan and Martin blossoms into a kind of friendship, even though he has to keep fighting his kelpie instincts (dragging humans into the water and killing them). Jan spends most of the story stumbling in confusion through this new magical world, but when the big requisite showdown scene arrives, she is immediately (and unbelievably) able to decipher the elf king's motivations, even though she knows nothing about the elves, their history, or their culture. In seconds, she has figured out why the elves are doing what they're doing and has negotiated a truce. It's a nice, neat resolution, except for the fact that this is a completely improbable act for our mostly clueless heroine to be able to carry out so successfully.
This book feels more like a rough draft than a finished product, primarily because the mythology (as previously discussed) has some definite weaknesses. Another problem is that the supers don't seem to know anything at all about the preters and their world, even though some of the supers have apparently been alive for centuries. Most of the time, when Jan asks a question about the preters, the answer is "I don't know." In general, the supers just hang out together, looking weird and doing next to nothing—except carjacking innocent humans and running a chop shop to make enough money to live on. They're not the most trustworthy bunch, and they keep warning Jan that she isn't really safe with them and that she shouldn't trust them. Then they beg her to help them by posing as bait in a trap to catch the preter that stole Tyler.
So...we have an unsophisticated, geeky, gasping-for-breath heroine; some hard-luck, semi-dangerous supers, and a hapless boyfriend lost in Elfland. On the bright side, the plot gets inventive when Jan discovers that the elves are using Internet dating sites to set up their victims—a blending of old magic and new technology being used for villainous purposes. Also, the two lead characters—Jan and, particularly, Martin—have some depth and charisma (although I didn't really feel much passion between Jan and Tyler).
Even though this introductory book didn't really work for me, I'm hoping that the series will straighten itself out in the next (final) book because the mythology represents a fresh and imaginative approach to urban fantasy. Click HERE to read an excerpt.
NOVEL 2: Soul of Fire
Jan is feeling useless because she doesn't see a place for herself in the supers' current projects. A.J. won't let her go off with the hunters to find the queen, and Jan herself has brought in some human computer experts who outshine her in technological skills. Eventually, she and Martin decide to go off on their own to find a witch who will help them locate the queen. What they don't count on is Tyler, who overhears their plans and stows away in the back of their getaway truck. Most of the story follows this intrepid trio as they find the queen and try to figure out how to use her to stop the preternatural invasion. Unfortunately, the first third of the book drags along a deadly slow pace as Jan mopes around trying to fit herself into the planning process and worrying about Tyler. The plot doesn't begin to gain momentum until after the trio takes off on their road trip (chapter 6—p. 96). Finding the queen doesn't take very long, and the bulk of the second half of the book takes place after they infiltrate the Queen's small-town home/Court. As Jan describes their situation late in the story: "They were about to take on a preter queen with the prep equivalent of a paper clip and a USB cable…What was there to be worried about?" (p. 232)
Gilman tells the story in the third person from the alternating perspectives of almost every primary and supporting character. The themes of the book (and of the series as a whole) are people's varying reactions to change and the importance of balance during periods of change. The preters abhor change, but are secretly bored with their lives, while humans deal with change on an everyday basis. The supers have had to learn to deal with change because they live in the human world, but they're more comfortable with old traditional ways. Here, Martin muses about the importance of balance as he and his team try to figure out how to deal with the queen and her minions: " 'There is a balance to this world, to both realms…The Center remains, and we balance around it. Occasionally it tilts one way or the other, but over time, it recalibrates, remains steady. Now…the preters may have lost their center….The magic changed, and they were vulnerable to it, changed by it. If we kill them all...we may damage our Center, as well.' He frowned. 'I think.' " (p. 260)
Gilman does a great job with the two primary settings: the supers' Farm headquarters, and the queen's home/Court. Both are described in vivid, textural detail—the clearest and most eloquent writing in the entire book.
One weakness in the plot is the mysterious Huntsman, who functions almost as a deus ex machina, popping in and out to bend the plot in various ways to suit the author's needs. In one brief (and weird) piece of dialogue, a character actually makes a connection between the Huntsman and a character in the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood.
Also problematic is the fact that although Jan and her team are close to a world-changing deadline, the clock-ticking-down tension that begins the opening scene is soon dropped, seemingly forgotten as the deadline comes and goes and the main characters appear not to notice. It would seem that if you had just five days to save the world, you would pay a great deal of attention to the calendar and the clock.
Again in this book I had a difficult time relating to Jan, whose personality has never been fully developed. Her character traits are so undependable that the reader can never predict how Jan will react to given situations. In various scenes, she is a timid geek, a courageous defender, an indecisive follower, and a brilliant strategist. I'm not implying that a character shouldn't be complex, but I am saying that by the end of the second novel, the reader should have some idea of what drives the main character—some clue as to how she will behave as she meets various difficulties. That is definitely not the case with this heroine. This novel does have a more finished feel than the first one, and (thankfully) Jan isn't gasping for breath all of the time or dropping her inhaler in the middle of a battle. This time around, the inhaler stays mostly in her pocket, where she fondles it like a good-luck charm.
The climactic ending (in a church graveyard, no less) resolves most of the conflict, but there are still one or two issues that are not settled. Although the author's web site lists this series as a duology, I'm guessing that she will eventually return to the two important characters whose uncertain futures are left dangling. Then, too, we are left with no indication as to Jan's romantic choice. Will it be with Martin or Tyler—or someone else entirely? And what's up with that horse-shaped charm the witch gave to Jan? Also left unexplained is the Brownies' secret plan. We watch them sneaking around, and we eavesdrop on mysterious bits of dialogue, but there is no pay-off on that sub-plot in this book.