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Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Author:  Caitlin Kittredge
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Harper Voyager 
          Black Dog (10/2014)
          Grim Tidings (4/2016)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 5/19/2016 to include a review of Grim Tidings, the second novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of the first novel.

           FAIR WARNING: This review of Grim Tidings           
           contains spoilers for Black Dog.           
                         NOVEL 2:  Grim Tidings                         
Publisher's Blurb: 
     In this thrilling sequel to Black Dog, a soul catcher must stop demonic monsters from her past from infecting the world.

     After winning her freedom from a reaper and facing off against a fearsome demon boss, Ava is now a masterless hellhound. Her friend, Leo, has found a new life after death: He’s returned as the Grim Reaper—the first in centuries. As both try to adjust to their new circumstances, Ava’s dark past comes back to wreak havoc on her...and the entire world.

     A breed of monsters as smart as vampires—but who behave like zombies—has been sighted in Kansas. This isn't the first time Ava's come across these "zompires," and now they're spreading their infection across America's heartland thanks to a nasty piece of business named the Walking Man. Ava thought she’d kicked his ass for good when she first battled him in a Nazi death camp, and that mistake just might cost her life.

     Free at last after being locked up in Hell for millennia, the Walking Man has some scores to settle. To stop him, Ava must form an unholy alliance with some old foes and new friends...a bargain that will lead her to uncover deeply buried truths about her past—and Leo’s future. 

My Review: 
     In this book, we move back and forth between Ava's present and her past—back to the mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. During World War II, Ava teams up with a doctor in a Nazi death camp to kill a humanoid entity who is creating zompires. Then, during the 1950s, she partners with Don Tanner of the Kansas State Police to track down the Walking Man, a monstrous serial killer who is cutting a murderous swath through the Midwest. The publisher's blurb (above) summarizes the story, so I won't describe the plot in much detail. 

     As the book opens, Ava and her boyfriend, Leonid "Leo" Karpovnow the Grim Reaperare traveling to Minneapolis, where a reaper named Owen claims to posses the Grim Reaper's scythe. Owen has his own agenda for the reapers, and Ava and Leo want to find out who is pulling his strings. Soon, Ava and Leo split up, after the angel Uriel and a mysterious, dream-talking psychic pressure her into tracking down the Walking Man, the same killer who ensnared her 60 years ago in Kansas. Ava goes off with Uriel while Leo stays in Minneapolis to get the reaper situation under control, and we don't see him again until late in the novel. Ava's continuing relationship with Uriel is a dark secret that Ava keeps from Leo because of some issues that developed in the previous book. All of the characters in this series keep secrets from one another, which provides the author with plenty of chances to insert dramatic "why did you betray me?" scenes to balance out the all-too-frequent "beat Ava to a pulp" scenes.

     Although Ava is a courageous heroine, she is completely at the mercy of her enemiesalways and forever a victim. At one point after being kidnapped yet again, she mourns, "This was how it always ended up for me I could try to break away from what I was, but I was always going to be the one who had to bend to someone else's will…I was going to knuckle under to another psycho control freak who'd decided I was fun to torture." All of Ava's adversaries are much more powerful than she is, andworst of allthey NEVER DIE! No matter what she does to them, they always fake-die and then shock her by materializing out of nowhere to attack her at a later point in time. Now Ava has been a hellhound for nearly a century, but she still doesn't know the rules of the supernatural world she lives in. She doesn't know how to kill her enemies permanently. She can't keep from falling under her enemies' spells. She can't outfight them. She can't out-think them. All she can do is get beat up, poisoned, stabbed, and burned by them. Her existence is so hopeless that it's hard to keep dredging any hope for her because the author has put her in such a permanently powerless position. 

     The plot is complex enough with its continuing flashback chapters, but as more and more supposedly dead enemies pop up to attack Ava, Leo, and Hank (Ava's new ally), Kittredge puts a few too many twists into the final chapters, tying the plot in a messy knot rather than providing a plausible resolution. Instead of strengthening the weaknesses of Black Dog's plot, this novel magnifies them: the hopelessly beaten-down heroine, the convoluted plot, and the muddled world-building. 

     If you enjoy (if that's the right word) grim and gloomy urban fantasy, you might like this series. Be sure to read Black Dog first, though, because you need to understand the events of that book in order to get a handle on what's going on in this one. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from Grim Reaper on the book's page—just click on the cover art.

     Kittredge does some extensive world-building in the first book, establishing a mythology that reinvents the traditional story of fallen angels, demons, Hell, and Tartarus. She does not provide a glossary of terms, so here are a few definitions to help you understand this mythology:

    > The Kingdom: A Heaven-like place that is run by the Host; "Nine generals who give the orders. There's nothing higher than them…" (Black Dog, p. 200)

    > The Fallen: Fallen angels who were banished from the Kingdom. Originally, they were sent to Hell, but escaped to the mortal plane when the demons revolted against them. Most have maintained at least a fewbut not allof their particular angelic powers.

    > Demons (aka Hellspawn): Supernatural beings created by the Fallen as servants in Hell. They despise the Fallen and eventually rose against them. Lilith was the first demon to be created.

    > Hell: The original home of the Fallen.

    > Tartarus (aka the Pit): A prison in the deepest depths of Hell where the Fallen imprisoned the demons. After the demons rose up and took over Hell, they used the Pit to contain the damned souls collected by the reapers. As the series begins, the gates of Tartarus are tightly closed, permitting no exit.

    > Reapers: Servants of demons. They are tasked with collecting the souls of sinners. The reapers also supervise the hellhounds and the people who provide vampires with their blood supply.

    > Hellhounds: Shapeshifters who serve the reapers, gathering the souls of wayward necromancers and of those who have "missed a payment," after selling their souls to a demon.

    > Necromancers: Warlocks who can raise, animate, and control the dead. They use blood in their conjuring: "Willing human blood for healing and protection. Unwilling for black magic and cursing." (Black Dog, p. 166)

    > Deadheads (aka Zombies): Mindless creatures raised from the dead and controlled by warlocks.

    > Vampires: "Suckers aren't hard to pick out. They stink like old women's underwear, and unless they've got a good hemoglobin-rich supply, they start looking like beat-up luggage within a couple of weeks." (Black Dog, p. 28) Older vamps weigh very little because their internal organs dry out. The only sure way to kill them is to burn their bodies completely.

    > Shapeshifters: They can shift regardless of the moon phase, and they live in multi-species packs (e.g., coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions).

     The series heroine is Ava, a hellhound who works for a reaper named Gary. Gary, in turn, works for the demon Lilith. Ava is unique among hellhounds because she can remember when she was human, a fact that she keeps a secret from Gary. Ava lives a hopeless existence. If she fails on any soul-gathering assignment, Gary will kill her and send her to Hell. If she completes her assignments successfully, she will be assigned more—an endless stretch of violence, fear, and endless servitude. Ava knows that she "might not always like what I did, or that that matter what I was, but I was a hound. I was made to hunt. It was all I was meant to do…My part was to track [the necromancer] down and kill him. Always had been, always would be. I was a hound, That was all I was good for." (Black Dog, p. 24) Gary puts it in much cruder terms, continually reminding Ava that she is nothing but his loyal dog: "…Ava, you get to do what you do best…Fetch." (Black Dog, p. 15)

            NOVEL 1:  Black Dog             
     When Gary sends Ava to Las Vegas to find out why his blood supplier is having trouble with deadheads, the necromancer who created the zombies captures and tortures her in an attempt to get her to kill Gary and steal his Scythe, a powerful blade that can draw out a soul and instantly kill any creature, human or supernatural. The necromancerLeonid (Leo) Karpovwants to use the Scythe to kill his father, Sergei, a powerful necromancer who heads up a mob family. Leo is Sergei's illegitimate son, whom Sergei uses as a killer and a clean-up man but denies any power. Eventually, the situation goes bad when Gary finds out about Leo, Sergei gets involved, Gary gets killed, and Sergei grabs the Scythe. By chapter 10, Ava and Leo have teamed up and are on the run from Sergei, who wants Leo dead.

     Then, Lilith pops in to scold Ava for her part in Gary's death and to send her out on a new assignment: to track down Clint Hicks, who has managed to keep Gary's hellhounds from finding him for more than 25 years. Clint has holed up in the wilds of Wyoming under the protection of a gang of meth-making, biker shapeshifters. Leo and Ava do a Bonnie and Clyde run across the West, stealing cars, throwing people out of motel rooms at gunpoint, and always looking over their shoulder for Sergei's thugs. Once Ava and Leo meet up with Clint, the story takes an entirely new tone and direction because Clint isn't humanhe's much more. By the end of the book, Ava and the reader have met so many unreliable narrators that we don't know which one to believe. Ava decides to believe none of them.

     In order to keep the spoilers to a minimum, I'll summarize the rest of the story by saying that the intrepid trio—Ava, Leo, and Clint—travel to New Orleans where Ava learns some new information about her true identity. Then, Lilith thrusts Leo and Ava into a hellish situation that results in pain and self-sacrifice for both of them. Ava sums up her situation near the end of the book: "In the last twelve hours I'd been kidnapped by Lilith, traveled to Hell for the first time, almost been stranded in the Hellspawn equivalent of a supermax, and met an angel who would probably peel my skin like a grape if I crossed him." (p. 340)

     This is the part of the book that is heavy with world-building: the structure of the underworld, the history of the Fallen and the demons, and Ava and Leo's role in this big picture. Sometimes, the mythology is clear, but other times it is muddled and hard to understand. I found myself going back and rereading paragraphs, unable to figure out exactly what Kittredge was saying. All we can do is hope that either she constructs a glossary before the second book comes out or that her explanations are clearer in that book.

     All through the book, we get flashbacks to Ava's human life and her tragic death in the early 1920s at the hands of two men she trusted. Here, she reflects on her death: "That was how Gary got me…I was afraid, of dying, of crossing, of finding out what was waiting for me. I let him take my soul and turn me into his monster, together for a hundred years and a hundred morethe same deal every hound got with their reaper." (p. 51) Her full death flashback doesn't come until chapter 17.

     Even with the wonky world-building, I enjoyed the book, mostly because of the complexity of the characters. Ava, who still has her soul and her human memories, has both good and evil in her past, but she tends toward doing the right thing more times than not. If Ava has a fault, it is her tendency to overestimate her ability to overcome her enemies. She is constantly getting captured, injured, and tortured by both humans and supernaturals, but these failures never teach her to be more cautious. Her worst TSTL moment comes during a private meeting with Sergei, when she falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book: drinking something proffered by her enemy. This little scene will have every reader mentally screaming "No! Don't drink that."—but to no avail. 

     Ava's relationship with Leo is complicated; after all, he tortured her the first time they met. Leo has a tragic past: the bastard son of a truly evil man who consigns him to murderous work and little or no reward. When he meets Ava, his life is consumed by his need for revenge against his father. Neither Ava nor Leo is looking for love, but their forced comradeship ignites a mutual attraction that won't be denied. Kittredge doesn't turn this into an insta-love situation, though. Ava and Leo start off as enemies, then become frenemies, then comrades in arms, then mutual protectors, and finally friends and lovers. It's a long, slow, painful process, filled with darkly sarcastic repartee and periodic bouts of distrust and alienation. 

Click HERE to read an excerpt from Black Dog on the book's page—just click on the cover art.

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