Having read all thirteen volumes of Chloe Neill's 'Chicagoland Vampires' series, I was okay when she ended it and switched to a sequel series. I'd enjoyed it all the way through and sometimes enjoyed it a lot more, but it had got a little much, with Merit going through a vampire's extended lifetime worth of action in a blink over a year with fangs. I thought there was a lot of possibility to pick up the quality again in the new 'Heirs of Chicagoland' series but, while I enjoyed 'Wild Hunger', some of the basic logic was really disappointing. Chicago is suddenly at peace for a generation, except it isn't, and it'll all start off again the moment Merit's daughter comes back from France. Yeah, it was both really good and really not good at the same time.
So to book two and Neill makes a very important decision very early on, which is to shift the action out of Chicago entirely and, frankly, it's both the best thing that she could have done at this point and exactly what she should have done a book earlier. It means that we get to explore our new hero, Elisa Sullivan, away from all the baggage that had started to weigh down 'Chicagoland Vampires', a combination of drama revolving around her family, her species and her city. It means that we get to explore the other key cast of this sequel, people like Connor Keene and Lulu Bell, without nostalgia for their respective families taking over either. It means that we can explore the future of this world without caring about its past. It's emphatically a breath of fresh air in absolutely the same way that 'Wild Hunger' wasn't.
It wouldn't hurt for potential readers to have read 'Wild Hunger' first but it's far from compulsory to have worked through those thirteen 'Chicagoland Vampires' books. All they need to know is that vampires and werewolves are real and they have effectively come out to the public, declaring their presence in the world. Elisa is the daughter of Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House in Chicago and one of the most powerful vampires in North American, and his wife, Merit. More pertinently to this sequel series, she's also the first and only vampire to be born rather than made. She's our lead and her love interest is Connor Keene, son of Gabriel Keene, the Apex of the North American Pack of werewolves, who's also in training to take over as Apex himself someday.
While we begin in Chicago, Connor invites Elisa to join him on a trip to South Bay, Minnesota. This is a big deal, for a lot of reasons. For one, it suggests that their relationship is moving from being a potential one to being a real one. For another, it's a family affair, because Connor is going to South Bay to witness one of his cousins being initiated into the Pack. Playing into both those reasons, it's not something that a vampire would normally be invited to see, making it quite the statement, to a girlfriend and to a Pack that might object. Finally, it's a kind of test for Connor, because something is going on in South Bay and a future Apex ought to know how to figure it out and solve it.
What we find is that, while North American werewolves have generally announced their existence to the human world, not all the local packs have followed suit and the South Bay werewolves fit in the latter group, causing some frustrations between their elders and their younger members. The more time we spend with them, the more frustrations show up and the more dangerous the conflict at the heart of the community seems. Oh, and there's a monster, one huge enough and powerful enough to kill a werewolf. The suggestion is that it's the Beast of Owatonna, "Minnesota's answer to Bigfoot". And hey, we've a met a whole bunch of other supernatural species who are staying secret for now. Is the Beast of Owatonna going to join that list?
I'm sure that I could find some negative things to say about this book, if I think hard enough. A few angles are skimped over a little, perhaps, and Connor has to play some serious cards that he should have kept up his sleeve. But hey, he's learning the ropes. I can buy into him being a flawed hero and still come back to find out what's going to happen with him in book three. As that might suggest, it could be argued that this is more of a Connor Keene book than an Elisa Sullivan book, but that isn't a problem for me either. I can rationalise away most of the negative aspects or even turn them into positive ones. And there are plenty of those.
Once Chloe Neill frees herself from the things readers would have expected, had she kept the action in Chicago, she seems to enjoy herself again and have fun expanding an already broad story in quite a few directions. We learn as much about the Pack in this book as we may have done in the previous fourteen, for a start, and they're simultaneously just as strong and just as weak as the community of vampires we've spent so much time with. They have their own rituals and their own rules and not all of them really make a heck of a lot of sense. There are some really dumb werewolves as well, just like there are some really bright and brave and forward-looking werewolves. I like the big picture.
I wish there was more Lulu Bell, because she's fast becoming my very favourite character in this new series, but it makes sense for her to show up at a particular point, do what she does and not do what she doesn't. I'm not going to be upset that a rational and worthy story wasn't made secondary to an individual reader's preferences. That's why some earlier books, most notably the thirteenth of those thirteen 'Chicagoland Vampires' volumes, didn't succeed in all the ways that they should.
And, even if there are faults here and there, this one succeeds in all the ways that it should. In fact, I enjoyed myself more with this book than anything in this pair of series that I can recall. I think that I'd have to go back to the heyday of the 'Chicagoland Vampires' series to find something better, ten books or so back. Bring on 'Shadowed Steel', book three of the 'Heirs of Chicagoland', due in 2021! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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