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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Faith Hunter: SOULWOOD SERIES

Author:  Faith Hunter
Series:  SOULWOOD (set in JANE YELLOWROCK world)
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles:  Roc
          Blood of the Earth (8/2016)
          Curse on the Land (11/2016)
          Flame in the Dark (12/2017)

This post was revised and updated on 12/31/2017 to include a review of Flame in the Dark, the third (and possibly FINAL) novel in the series. That review appears first followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of the first two novels.

                         NOVEL 3:  Flame in the Dark                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Nell Ingram has always known she was different. Since she was a child, she’s been able to feel and channel ancient powers from deep within the earth. When she met Jane Yellowrock, her entire life changed, and she was recruited into PsyLED—the Homeland Security division that polices paranormals. But now her newly formed unit is about to take on its toughest case yet.

     A powerful senator barely survives an assassination attempt that leaves many others dead—and the house he was visiting burns to the ground. Invisible to security cameras, the assassin literally disappears, and Nell’s team is called in. As they track a killer they know is more—or less—than human, they unravel a web of dark intrigue and malevolent motives that tests them to their limits and beyond

MY REVIEW: 
     The way that Hunter ties up most of the loose ends in this novel makes me think that it is the final one, but she does leave several threads dangling, so perhaps I'm wrong. 

     Unlike the previous novel, Nell focuses her energy on one primary problem: that someone is attacking members of the prominent Tolliver family, which includes Senator Abrams Tolliver, his brother, Justin, and their wives and young children. The Tollivers have deep roots and heavy influence within the political, social, economic, and cultural life of Knoxville. After firing an automatic weapon indiscriminately into several social gatherings at which the Tollivers are present, the shooter sets each place on fire. The team gets jerked from one fiery, blood-soaked crime scene to another as they try to figure out who wants the family wiped out and why. Is it just one perpetrator, or is it a gang? How is the shooter picking his/her targets? Why does the shooter appear as just a blur on security cameras? What is that strange metallic, chemical odor left behind at each crime scene? Who will gain from these attacks?

     I don't want to say much more about the plot because its effectiveness depends on the reader's surprise at the answers to the above questions. I will just say that by the end of the book, the team will encounter a new supernatural species they thought was extinct, or even mythological. At first, I thought that this plot line was going to work well. It has plenty of compelling, life-and-death action, and the police procedural process is laid out nicely. But at the big "reveal" moment when we learn the identities of the villains and why they did what they did, the explanation for their actions didn't ring true for me at all. Why cause all of this public violence and destruction—not to mention the deaths of so many innocents—when their goals could have been achieved in a stealthy, behind-the-scenes manner that would not have attracted four branches of law enforcement: local police, state police, FBI, and PsyLED?

     Meanwhile, there are several other thin story threads:
> Nell's sister, Mindy (aka Mud), who has the same earth-based supernatural abilities as Nell, has had her first period and is now considered by the church to be a woman of marriageable age. Nell is determined that Mud will not get pulled into an arranged marriage, and she is equally determined that she will train Mud to deal with her earthy talents so that Mud won't make the same mistakes that Nell did. This story line is partially resolved, but I wouldn't be surprised if Hunter put Mud in the starring role in a future novel.
During the investigation, Nell realizes that one of the probationary FBI agents is actually a non-Church cousin of hers: "Chadworth Sanders Hamilton, his father's second son from his second wife, named for his mother's grandfathers. And my third cousin, by way of Maude Nicholson, my grandmother. My distant cousin from the townie side of the family." Hamilton turns out to be an arrogant, intolerant, supernatural-hating jerk, but other than that, this story line goes nowhere. 
And finally, the love story between Nell and Occam. In the second novel, Occam told Nell that he wanted to take her out to dinner, but since then, he has avoided the subject. Nell isn't sure what to think. She is afraid of committing to a relationship with a manno matter how much her body tells her that Occam is "the one." To make the situation more complex, Nell's mother traps her into meeting Ben Aden, a handsome, college-educated  Church man in search of a wife. Mom hopes that Nell will marry Ben and come back home. Nell is torn between the safety of the devil you know (Ben and the Church) and the pleasurable risks of the devil you don't know (that would be sexy Occam). This is kind of a lame story line because we all know whom Nell is going to choose. Also, all of her dithering about the possibility of returning to the safe embrace of the Church just doesn't ring true. Now that she carries a law enforcement badge, lives in a house with Wi-Fi, has a circle of loyal friends (all non-Church), and gorges daily on every known type of fast food, can Nell really go back to the patriarchal, parsimonious, primitive life of a Church woman? 
In one final, brief story line, Hunter satisfactorily resolves Nell's situation regarding Brother Ephraim and the vampire tree on the Church's property (both of which are important parts of the plot of the previous novel).
     The end of the book has a shocking twist that I didn't see coming. It threw me off balance for a moment until I realized Hunter's plans for the ending. That twist is over-the-top woo-woo (and that's saying a lot because Nell's super-powers are very bizarre on their own). 

     This novel is definitely an improvement on Curse on the Land, but doesn't have quite the appeal of the first novel, Blood of the Earth. That is probably due to the fact that Jane Yellowrock herself was a major character in book one, and she is such a powerfully drawn character that she instantly brings star power to any story in which she appears. Nell's character, on the other hand, can't match Jane's charisma or depth.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Flame in the Dark is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                      WORLD-BUILDING                         
    The world of JANE YELLOWROCK is a place in which vampires, shape shifters, witches, and other supernatural entities live alongside humans, who are aware of their existence. Jane Yellowrock is a mercenary—a rogue vampire hunter for hire. She is a skinwalker with a Cherokee heritage and a mysterious origin. To learn more about the JANE YELLOWROCK world, click HERE to read "Who Is Jane Yellowrock?" on the Heroes and Heartbreakers blog or click HERE to go to a Jane Yellowrock wiki on the Urban Fantasy Wikia web site. Click HERE to go to my web page on the JANE YELLOWROCK SERIES.

     The heroine of the SOULWOOD SERIES is Nell Nicholson Ingram, a mostly human 24-year-old woman who lives alone on her late husband's forested property outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Nell met Jane in "Off the Grid" (in Hunter's Blood in Her Veins story collection) when Jane requested her help in rescuing a vampire from the clutches of God's Cloud of Glory Church, a religious cult in which Nell was born and raised, but has long since denounced. God's Cloud is a patriarchal, polygamous group that adheres rigidly to societal rules in which women wear long skirts, bear many children, and leave the running of religious, social, and financial affairs to the men. It's a place where the church leader has the power to order unmarried women to become wives or concubines and where arranged marriages of young teenage girls are the rule. 


     When Nell was just twelve years old, the church's former leader demanded that she marry him. Nell publicly refused and instead became the second wife of John Nicholson, whose first wife (Leah) was dying of cancer. When Leah died, Nell and John married in a legal, civil ceremony and he left her his land in his will when he died three years ago—a nasty surprise to the church, which had assumed that the land—called Soulwood—would be theirs. Since then, the churchmen have been trying to get the land from her through threats and violence. Many of them believe that she is a witch and want to burn her at the stake according to church law. Ever since Nell and John and Leah left the church at the time Nell joined them, Nell has had little contact with her parents and siblings. As the series begins, Nell is all alone. The churchmen have even killed her three dogs. She has guns hidden all over her house and garden, but she's pretty sure that some day soon she won't be able to fend them off.


     Nell knows that she has "powers," but she isn't sure exactly what she is or how her powers work. Eight years ago, she killed a man who tried to molest her and "fed" him to the earth on her farm, which sucked in all of his blood and bones, leaving only an oily smear on the surface of the ground. "I had fed him to the forest. I hadn't even known for sure who he was. I still didn't know. But that was my secret, never shared, not with anyone." Nell can feel the land's reactions to visitors, so she always knows if someone is on or near her land and if they are friends or enemies. Jane Yellowrock tells Nell that her magic is "similar to the Cherokee Yinehi," who are like the fairies in European folklore. In "Off the Grid," Jane muses about Nell: “Her magic was peculiar, but it clearly had a spatial net of sensory awareness, an ability to tell when she was being studied or hunted. My beast had the same awareness...The word came to me slowly, the Tsalagi syllables sounding in my mind, whispery and slow. Yi-ne-hi. Or maybe yv-wi tsv-di. Or a-ma-yi-ne-hi. Fairies, dwarves, the little people, or in her case, maybe wood nymphs would be closer. Mixed with human. Mostly human. Fairies in Cherokee folklore weren’t evil, just private and elusive, and sometimes tricksters, but this girl didn’t look tricky. Just wary. But the magic was woodsy, like the fey, the little folk. In American tribal lore, only the Cherokee had fairies and little people, possibly from the British who intermarried among them for so many centuries.” (Click HERE to read the entire scene in which Jane first meets Nell.) By the end of “Off the Grid," Jane has shoved Nell out of the shadows of her reclusive life into new adventures that begin in Blood of the Earth


     In the first novel, Nell explains that her magic "could help seeds sprout, make plants grow stronger, heal them when they got sick and tried to die off." She also knows that if a person spills blood on Soulwood land, Nell can kill them: "All I needed was one drop of...blood and I could take his life. It was my best protection; it was my magic and the magic of my land." She knows that "if they bled onto my land, they were mine." She keeps this part of her magic secret from everyone and tries not to think too much about it herself.


                         NOVEL 1:  Blood of the Earth                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Set in the same world as the New York Times bestselling JANE YELLOWROCK novels, an all-new series starring Nell Ingram, who wields powers as old as the earth. 

     When Nell Ingram met skinwalker Jane Yellowrock, she was almost alone in the world, exiled by both choice and fear from the cult she was raised in, defending herself with the magic she drew from her deep connection to the forest that surrounds her. 

    Now, Jane has referred Nell to PsyLED, a Homeland Security agency policing paranormals, and agent Rick LaFleur has shown up at Nell’s doorstep. His appearance forces her out of her isolated life into an investigation that leads to the vampire Blood Master of Nashville. 


     Nell has a team—and a mission. But to find the Master’s kidnapped vassal, Nell and the PsyLED team will be forced to go deep into the heart of the very cult Nell fears, infiltrating the cult and a humans-only terrorist group before time runs out.

MY REVIEW:  

    In the opening scene, Rick LaFleur and his werecat mate, Paka, arrive at Soulwood to request Nell's assistance on a case. After Jane met Nell and recognized her powers, she described Nell to Rick and suggested that she would make a good PsyLED agent. PsyLED is the shortened name for the Psychometry Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security, and it deals with all crimes involving magic. Rick became a werecat through a bite, but Paka was born a werecat. To be completely accurate, they are actually African black were-leopards.

     Rick wants to hire Nell as a consultant to PsyLED on a single case involving the God's Cloud church. Depending on how that works out, he might hire her on as an agent. But first, he has to convince Nell to help him out.

A Grindelow

     The case involves a group called the Human Speakers of Truth, a terrorist, anti-anyone-nonhuman, militant group that is on the run from the federal authorities. After the Speakers were tracked to Knoxville, they disappeared, and Rick believes that the Church is hiding them. That makes sense to Nell because both groups are ultra-right wing paranormal haters with legal and financial problems. After Nell sends Rick and Paka away without an answer, three churchmen attack her with gunfire. Just as she is about to give up hope, Paka arrives in leopard form followed by Rick with his own gun, and they basically save her life. They are accompanied by Pea, who is a grindelow—a small, neon-green, cat-like creature with long steel claws and sharp teeth that serves as an enforcer of were law by keeping weres from spreading the were-taint or killing humans. At this point, Nell agrees to help Rick with the case.


     Then, Rick sends a team of newly trained PsyLED agents to stay with Nell, both for her protection and for her to help them with the case. She soon makes friends with all of them, some more than others. The early stages of a love interest appear to be developing between Nell and Occam, a handsome, blond were-leopard with a Texas drawl. Another male team member also becomes Nell's friend: an empath named Tandy who promptly falls in love with Soulwood and its magic.


     The plot moves in a meandering manner as Nell and her PsyLED allies follow one lead after another as they try to figure out whether four local kidnappings of young women are related, whether the Speakers are the perpetrators, and how the Church is involved with the Speakers. Meanwhile, Nell is forced to make contact with some of her family members to ask pertinent questions about the case, and during this process she learns some shocking information about her own personal history. As the case progresses, Nell becomes increasingly comfortable working with her PsyLED comrades, which surprises her because she has always preferred to be alone on her land with no contact with any other people. She also begins to test the limits of her magic.


     As usual, Faith Hunter tells a great story, but I do have two minor nits to pick. First, Nell is just too good to be true—too kind, too thoughtful, too well educated (by reading books from the local public library)—basically too flawless in every way. She cooks like a dream, keeps her primitive home spotless, shoots all kinds of guns with great accuracy, and is the perfect hostess—all in a house with limited electricity and no running water. Unfortunately, a perfect heroine is not nearly as interesting as a flawed heroine. The second problem has to do with the distance between Soulwood and the Church lands. Soulwood has no cellphone service, but the Church does, even though the Church settlement is within walking distance of Nell's house. It seems to me that a cellphone tower that services the Church would also serve Soulwood. Also, Nell has access to Wi-Fi as long as her generator is operating. How can she have Wi-Fi but not cellphone service? It may seem that I'm making a big deal out of nothing, but actually, the lack of cellphone service at Nell's house becomes critical at several points in the story.


     Putting aside these minor problems, this is the beginning of a great series. In this book Nell begins to blossom, emerging from her solitary existence and entering a world full of support and friendship among her PsyLED teammates. Although the plot is dark and violent, there are moments of humor, particularly when the PsyLED agents listen to Nell's hill-country accent and underestimate her intelligence. When she demonstrates her top-of-the-line powers of deductive reasoning, they discover that her intellectual abilities are right up there with Sherlock Holmes. Nell even learns to laugh, something she hasn't done in many months. 


     This book could be read as a stand-alone, but it's better if you have some background on the JANE YELLOWROCK world. For example, Nell notices the strained relationship between Rick and Paka and makes some deductions and assumptions about the cause, but if you have read the JANE books, you'll already know what the problem is. Give this series a try; you won't be sorry.


FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Blood of the Earth is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                         NOVEL 2:  
Curse on the Land                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Before Nell Ingram met skinwalker Jane Yellowrock, she had no one to rely on, finding strength only in her arcane connection to the dark woods around her. But now she has friends in the newly formed PsyLED team to keep her grounded—even if being part of the agency responsible for policing paranormals comes with dangers of its own....

     After completing her training at the PsyLED academy, Nell returns home to her woods to find the land feeling sick and restless. And that sickness is spreading. With the help of her team, under the leadership of agent Rick LaFleur, Nell tries to determine the cause. But nothing can prepare them for the evil that awaits: an entity that feeds on death itself. And it wants more…

MY REVIEW: 
     This novel encompasses just one week in time, but there is a lot of action packed into those seven days. As the first chapter begins, Nell is driving home after completing her training at the PsyLED academy, otherwise known as Spook School. Nell is now a probationary special agent with a badge and all of the weapons and special equipment she needs to handle her new duties. Even after undergoing extensive testing by the paranormal branch of law enforcement, no one can figure out exactly what she is, so she is classified as "nonhuman, paranormal, undifferentiated" because she doesn't fit into the most common categories. Although just a few day pass before the novel ends, lots of things change in Nell's personal life and within Unit Eighteen, her PsyLED team. 

Speaking of Unit Eighteen, here is a list of the team members:
Rick La Fleur is the head of the team. He used to be Jane Yellowrock's boyfriend, but due to a series of tragic events he is magically (and unhappily) bonded to Paka, a black wereleopard from Gabon in Central Africa.
Soul is the assistant director of PsyLED and Rick's immediate superior. Although she usually appears only in human form and keeps her supernatural identity a deep secret, Nell and Occam accidentally learned that she is a rainbow dragonan Arcenciela beautiful and ferocious shape-shifting creature made of light. 
Josephine Anna Jones (aka Jo Jo) is Rick's second in command. She is a tech specialist who can hack into any computer network, even those that belong to the government.
Tammie Laine Kent (aka T. Laine, aka Lainie) is a moon witch who is exceptionally powerful during the days surrounding the full moon.
Thom Andrew Dyson (aka Tandy) is an empath who used to be very shy, but who is now speaking up and becoming friendlier. He empathic abilitiies were activated when he was struck by lightning three times. The lightning marked him with reddish collored Lichtenberg lines that cover his face and upper body.
Occam is a golden, spotted wereleopard who REALLY likes Nell. (He always calls her "Nell, sugar," which still makes her uncomfortable.)
The primary plot begins with a possible magical event that is causing geese on a local pond to swim in circles until they die. In addition, Hunter intermixes several subplots and story threads. Here is a brief summary of the plot set-up:
> In the main plot, Nell and her team try to figure out what is causing the increasingly alarming events that have hit Knoxville. More animals behave strangely and then die. People begin doing the strange circular walking and then become psychotic. Black slime mold begins to grow wherever such events have occurred. Eventually, Nell's research uncovers a connection with events that took place nearly 80 years ago in Nazi Germany. This extremely complicated story line is resolved, although it gets so dense at times that I had to go back and re-read several sections just to refresh my memories on names and events, both past and present.
> In the most important secondary plot line, Nell's land (Soulwood) has been contaminated by the black and angry spirit of Brother Ephraim, who Nell fed to the land after Paka the werecat killed him in book 1. Now, his spirit is sending out tendrils of evil energy that cause a poisonous, thorny tree to grow on Nell's land. The tendrils also cause the oak tree on the Church's land to morph into a vampire tree that eats small animals (and earthmovers) and attacks people. This story line is partially resolved.
> Then, there is the ongoing story line about Rick and his inability to shift. The novel is set during the week of the full moon, during which Rick tries very hard to shift into his werecat form, with disastrous results. In the process, an unimaginable betrayal is revealed, one that draws Nell directly into Rick's dire situation. This story line is partially resolved.
> Nell's father has become quite ill and refuses to seek medical aid. Nell and her family must try to get him to see reason. This story line is unresolved. 
> And then there's the love story, as Occam, the sexy golden leopard shifter, makes his romantic intentions toward Nell pretty clear. Nell, however, isn't quite sure how to react. Her strict Church upbringing pulls her one way, but her body's reaction to Occam tells her something quite different. 
      This story has a strong and mysterious beginning, but it soon devolves into impenetrable dumps of techno-babble that explain and re-explain an overload of pseudo-scientific data and technology. These paragraphs are so dense (and repetitive) that they slow down and sometimes bury the main plot. And don't get me started on the avalanche of acronyms. Here are the ones that appear in a single paragraph: PsyCSI, POVs, DOD, 3PEs, COD, TOD, and ID.

     Additionally, Hunter has inserted many, many details that should have been pruned by an alert editor, particularly the repetitive descriptions of Nell's housekeeping tasks, her daily food preparation, and her constant changing into one-after-another "unis" (i.e., haz-mat coveralls) at every crime scene. Sometimes she changes her uni half a dozen times at just one crime scene—and we get to hear about them all. Why? 

     The team members—particularly Nell—ricochet from one crisis to another, seemingly with no real plan in place to handle the case. When Rick's shifting situation goes south, this bouncing around gets even worse because by then, no one person is really in charge. 

     Most of the responsibility for solving the primary conflict—the walking in circles and the black slime—falls to Nell, who is constantly forced to shove her hands into the earth and "read" what's going on deep down below. (Uh-oh...that's where the Old Ones live.) By the end of the book, Nell has a deeper understanding of her powers and a better grasp on just what is going on with Brother Ephraim's evil spirit, but Rick is still in trouble, and Nell's father continues to be stubborn and difficult.

     One other problem I have with this book is that we really don't get a deep dive into Nell's transition from "widder-woman" to special agent. In the first book, she was living under primitive conditions and eating off the land. Now, all of a sudden, she's up to her ears in modern technology, scarfing down fast food like there's no tomorrow, and enjoying all the comforts of modern American life. Yet, she never really spends any time musing about the emotional effect these monumental life changes are having on her. It's as if she just goes from being "primitive girl" in book one to "modern girl" in book two with no inner conflicts at all. Remember, Nell was raised in an anti-technology, patriarchal religious cult under rigid rules regarding male-female relationships and—particularly—the submissive role of females. But now, she is a member of a team that gives men and women equal respect and responsibility. Also, she is (apparently) on her way to beginning a romantic relationship with Occam. Surely these huge life changes should have triggered some introspection for Nell. Instead, we get a few random "oh well" thoughts from Nell about how her mother would react to her new life, and that's the end of it. At one point, she even lies to her mother, which you'd think would trigger a flood of guilt, but that's not the case at all. Nell just thinks that in the end, it's  sometimes "a lot easier to lie...than to try to explain the truth. That must be why lying is such a common sin. It's successful and makes life easier." All of this means that angst-free Nell has become much more shallow than she was in book one, and that's definitely not a good thing.

     Although I enjoyed parts of this novel, I kept thinking that Hunter had jammed too many story lines and too much repetitive information into one book to the detriment of the main plot, which is already quite complex with its long and frequent pseudo-scientific techno-speak dumps. Why introduce Nell's father's illness? It's not resolved and has absolutely no connection with any of the other story lines, so why not save it for the next book? If I were giving this novel a grade, it would have to be a "C."

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