Jericho. By Alex Gordon. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
April 28, 2016
(++++) SECOND CHANCES
Jericho. By Alex Gordon. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Hellhound Chronicles, Book 1: Black Dog. By Caitlin Kittredge. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Hellhound Chronicles, Book 2: Grim Tidings. By Caitlin Kittredge. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
In her first novel, Gideon, Alex Gordon (the pen name of Kristine Smith) showed herself able to create an effective genre thriller in which, despite a plethora of “of course” moments, the overall effect was of a book with strikingly original elements. True, the preponderance of the material fit squarely within the genre – all that stuff about the undiscovered past, the thinness of the barrier between our world and the world beyond (or spirit world, or what have you), the need to come into one’s powers even if one has never known they existed, etc. But for all those formulaic plot points, and others, Gideon was ultimately a very effective ghosts-and-good-and-evil story, and Gordon was adept at including within it real-world elements (a still-unexplained 19th-century cold snap, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871) and giving them just enough of an eerie twist so that the real world and the supernatural one of the book seemed almost to touch. With Jericho, Gordon has another chance to extend the supernatural-thriller genre; and while she never quite rises to the challenge here either, she again shows that she can handle a plot well, write with skill and even at times with considerable style, and create characters with whom the reader can both sympathize and empathize. Foremost among them are protagonist Lauren Reardon, heroine of the first book, who has now come fully (maybe not quite fully) into her powers as a witch-guardian of the world’s thin places against the demons who constantly seek to push through them; and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Waycross, whom Lauren has replaced as Mistress of Gideon, the Illinois town whose name was the title of the first book. Jericho takes Lauren far from Gideon, to her own roots in the Pacific Northwest, as she is called – or beckoned to a trap – by disturbing voices that tempt her by offering the peace that she has only known, however imperfectly, in a place far from Gideon and a time before she learned of that troubled town and its many dark secrets. What Gordon does well here, as she did in the previous book, is to show what a burden it is to know and possess magic, how uncomfortable it is and how disturbing, how much it exposes its possessor to experiences that, even when they do not involve evil, can be sensorily overwhelming: few readers will want to be able to read others’ thoughts after contemplating the sorts of things that Lauren “hears” when she does just that. Lauren is drawn to the depths of a strange Oregon forest because of who and what she is, and even if the trappings of events there – the eerie sounds, rumored disappearances, odd spots of unnatural quiet – are formulaic, Lauren is a sufficiently three-dimensional character so that her responses ring true. True, Gordon has not quite found a way to bring Lauren’s fullness of personality to other creations: the first chapter of Jericho is almost embarrassingly bad, with every trope of the supernatural thriller and horror film tossed in willy-nilly, from the “troubled but obviously doomed character completely isolated, against everyone’s better judgment” to the “meaningless noises that of course will prove deadly.” Jericho, like Gideon, revolves around Lauren, and when she is center stage, the book is exciting, even gripping. When she interacts with other characters, including Virginia and a woman named Connie who has died and become a river (one of Gordon’s more-intriguing notions), those characters too become interesting, their concerns and fates involving. Gordon has created a highly believable character in Lauren, and if not everything else in Jericho is equally well-done, there are enough thrills, chills and hard-to-predict plot twists in the events that befall Lauren to keep readers captivated by this story and looking forward to others in the future.
There is nothing the slightest bit believable in the character named Ava who is the center of Caitlin Kittrege’s Hellhound Chronicles – except perhaps the backstory in which she was so terribly abused by a boyfriend that she made a horrendous after-death choice that gave her a second chance of existence, of sorts, but that landed her in the predicament underlying this dark urban fantasy series. Readers who find Ava’s no-nonsense, no-remorse, get-even-with-the-world attitude attractive will find both Black Dog and Grim Tidings to be exhilarating thrill rides. Those who deem Ava one-dimensional, almost a parody of the take-no-prisoners, get-back-at-everybody loner, and those who do not enjoy intense scenes of violence (including torture), will have little reason to read the books and will find little to enjoy if they do. But fantasy of this sort does tend to split readers in ways that other fantasy does not: heroic fantasy in the Tolkien mode, for example, may produce enjoyment or indifference, but fantasy of the Hellhound Chronicles type tends to bring with it greater intensity of both devotion and dislike. To give her credit, Kittredge does not flinch from the sorts of details that give this genre its flavor; she actually seems to relish them. The idea is to be over-the-top without ever falling into self-parody, and Kittredge knows how to do that. Black Dog sets the stage for the series, sometimes rather confusingly, through multiple overlapping plots. The basic notion here is that Ava has spent the past century as a hellhound, a servant of the Reapers, who collect damned souls but cannot actually spend much time on Earth and therefore need creatures like Ava to do their dirty work. Admittedly this makes little sense, but as with Ava’s personality, a reader either accepts it or looks for something else to peruse. Ava uses an object called a Scythe, which may or may not be an actual scythe, to gather souls, although she can also assume hound form and rip souls from bodies with her teeth. Ava’s reaper boss, Gary, is evil, sadistic and generally disgusting, and in Black Dog Ava decides she has had enough (for various reasons) and is going to destroy him. Unfortunately, Gary also has a boss, who turns out to be a genuine, full-fledged demon named Lilith – yes, that Lilith – and Lilith makes demands of Ava that are intended to further Lilith’s goal, which is the usual demon goal of unleashing unspeakable hellspawn on Earth to wreak havoc and all that. Again, this is as formulaic as it can be, but readers willing to accept it at face value will enjoy the intensity. Ava ends up getting together with a necromancer named Leonid Karpov, who is also a mobster and whom readers first meet when he is torturing Ava for information. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Ava and Leo soon form an alliance to go after the soul of one Clint Hicks, for complex reasons. Then it turns out that Hicks doesn’t actually have a soul, but does have it in for Lilith, and soon he joins the other two in what is, just about literally, the road trip from hell.
All that is in Black Dog, which lurches from plot strand to plot strand and nearly goes awry toward the end, and which includes one of the more uncomfortable sex scenes in recent books of this genre (and not uncomfortable because of torture: it is just plain awkward). The very, very end of the book works well, though, and nicely sets up Grim Tidings, in which Ava has become a hellhound-without-master and Leo has become, guess what, the, yes the, Grim Reaper. This is significant. Also significant are elements of Ava’s past hellhound activities, which start to have repercussions in the present. The most important of these involves a particularly nasty character simply called the Walking Man, whom Ava defeated back in the Nazi era (Nazis-era baddies are always reliable super-evildoers) but whom she didn’t really quite destroy. Oops. And now there is an army of zompires on the loose, tied to the Walking Man. Wait – zompires? Oh yes: the intelligence of vampires plus the behavior of zombies gives you zompires. There is something rather funny about all this, and indeed there is humor in these books, often of a rather lowbrow sort. Of course, the humor is dark – everything is dark here – but what is especially funny in Grim Tidings is that the zompire monsters are first sighted in…Kansas. Oh my. Clearly, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. The point of all this, to the extent that there is one, is that readers who enjoy the urban-fantasy genre and prefer their protagonists blood-soaked, unrepentant and intense as all, well, hell, will find Kittredge’s Hellhound Chronicles just their cup of…hmm, “tea” seems like an awfully mild beverage to associate with all this. Of course there is always blood, but perhaps something even more intensely intoxicating is called for. What sort of pick-me-up would a hellhound prefer, anyway?