Let's get the basics out of the way. As always, this is a fast and enjoyable read, featuring admirably slick prose from Chloe Neill, who still summarises what's gone before better than any author I can think of bar Seanan McGuire. You expected anything less? You haven't been paying attention.
This is the ninth in her Chicagoland Vampires series and it's a big step up from its predecessor, which I felt was mostly an opportunity for the author to pause, take stock and shuffle some things around to allow her to move the series onward. Each book thus far has had its own story, both brought up and wrapped up within its confines, but a little more progression to the series story arc, which has been suffering of late.
In fact, I'd say that the series arc is firmly back in business with a fresh goal in sight. Put simply, the Greenwich Presidium, those in charge of this public world of vampires, are a bunch of obsolete morons and a part of their idiocy has led to the expulsion of Cadogan House, where we spend most of the series in the company of most of the lead characters. With that complete, it would seem that we could forget about the GP but Neill trawls them in for a new phase in a clever way that I'm not sure I buy into or not. It seems just a little convenient, but I'm not going to argue for one moment about how it ought to play out. About frickin' time!
So there's long overdue improvement in the series arc. More importantly, the novel arc for this ninth volume plays out very well too, keeping us engaged, interested and ready for further expansion of the universe Neill has built. Yeah, that means more species because the bestiary continues to increase in size. Most of our leads are vampires, but we've met many other supernatural creatures, some but not all of which have followed the vampires' lead with a grand reveal to the public.
That's always been a problematic choice, hence the propensity for a backlash in most of the previous books, with riots getting old by now. Cadogan master Ethan Sullivan starts out this book avoiding bogus charges of murder from an overtly anti-vampire mayor's office by hiding out with the Breckenridges in an adjacent jurisdiction. They're family friends of Merit and also a part of the local werewolf population.
As always, Ethan's timing isn't great, because he and Merit, our true lead, end up there during Lupercalia, when the werewolf pack howls at the moon and connects to the raw magic of the Earth. And gets attacked by harpies.
That's just the beginning, because taking stock during the aftermath of this attack doesn't just highlight dissent in the ranks and a conveniently absent werewolf named Aline, who may or may not have suspiciously vanished partway through the festival to Alaska. It also includes the revelation that there's a hidden village of elves in the vicinity and they're pissed.
It seems that weird attacks aren't entirely new and they tend to end up not only with supernatural creatures dead but oddly also missing. All this means that Merit and Ethan quickly find themselves at the heart of a deal between the werewolves and the elves to track down and return Niera, a missing elf, as well as further investigate Aline, the missing werewolf. I won't spoil a thing here, but let's just say that this all escalates nicely.
I dug this book's story because it returns to a mystery that isn't just well framed but well-investigated and by our leads too. Neill does a great job at juggling that with an expansion of what we (and Merit) know about this world and tying new events into old in believable ways. There's a lot of potential manifested early here and I enjoyed how Neill met that potential a lot more than I have for a few books now. While it's nominally a vampire series, this one puts werewolves and sorcerers and an array of others to good use too.
Balancing out all the things I liked about this one with those that I didn't leads me to see this as a strong entry in the series, hardly the best but a long way from the worst. As Ethan points out late in the novel, "Chicago has become a very unusual world now you're in it, Merit." I, for one reader, am still happy with that, even if it's getting increasingly difficult to accept just how much craziness has gone on in Chicago of late.
I believe it's still a little less than a year since Merit was turned, but a historian in the know could have written more than these nine books about it all thus far. Of course, it's the old and inevitable problem about how many people can realistically get murdered in Miss Marple's quiet village of St. Mary Mead. Either we suspend our disbelief or we settle for a boring series. This series is never boring.
I'll add that I like how Merit's disgraced sorcerer friend Mallory's role in the series is recovering. Sure, she's a wild plot convenience of a character but she's an endearing one I wanted more from. However, I'm still waiting on some real validity for Jonah, Merit's partner in the Red Guard. Perhaps for the first time, I'm seeing where his opportunities might lie in future books and perhaps as soon as the next one. A new character is also added into the mix and I'm happy for the presence of Damien Garza.
All in all, I enjoyed this one more than the last and am happier about where the series seems to be going. We're in the home stretch now. Next up is the tenth book, Blood Games, with only three more after that. Watch this space. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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