I looked at this book with interest because it had a lot of potential for me. It's the first in a new series set in an existing world, that of the 'Noble Dead', some of which paperbacks I own. The Hendees, a married couple writing in Oregon, have written three prior series about the Noble Dead, starting with 'Dhampir' in 2003, and, if I'm understanding correctly, one of Barb Hendee's solo series, 'The Mist-Torn Witches' is set in this world too, pushing the book count in the series to almost twenty.
What I expected was that, by this point, they know this world backwards and are experienced in crafting new stories to place in it. I expected comfortable writing with the background coming as second nature and a focus instead on building new characters.
What I found was much of what I expected, but it's a little too comfortable for my tastes. I liked the two lead characters, along with a third who joins in late in support, and I appreciated the way in which their relationship was given depth. Put simply, one wanders the countryside doing his job, perhaps oblivious to the intent of his new companion, who has been hunting him to satisfy a need for vengeance, but finds herself helping him instead, at least for now. What I didn't like was how it was all constructed, as if the writers always took the easiest way out at any crucial point. Often that involves flashback scenes that are good only for taking us out of the moment. Why not craft gradual slippage of background into dialogue?
That wandering man is Tris Vishal and his companion is Mari Kaleja and they're each introduced capably in the brief prologue.
Tris is born into nobility but he stops breathing quickly, only to miraculously start again after he's been pronounced dead. This opens the suggestion, returned to again and again, that the person occupying this body, which never gets sick and which has some rather unique talents, isn't really Tris but another soul who merely appropriated the body that Tris had vacated. Maybe he's a demon, maybe an angel, maybe a boy dying round the corner who flew into the right spot at the right time. We have no idea and I'm sure we'll discover the truth in a gradual fashion as the series runs on, but what we do know is there's another Tris who seems to want to come back from the other side and reclaim his body, a 'black Tris'.
Mari is one of the Móndyalítko, which are clearly the Romany of this world, and the last of her family to survive, given that something supernatural murdered the rest of them in the haunted Wicker Woods. A child at the time, she grows up seeking vengeance on the creature who killed her family and she's pretty sure that she's found him in Tris. Of course, we're sure throughout that it's not really Tris that she seeks but the 'black Tris' who wants to kill him too, so the tension mostly revolves around waiting for her to catch up with us and realise that.
They meet because Tris has left his family to become the Dead's Man, a sort of mediaeval ghostbuster, in that he, unlike regular folk, can actually touch ghosts. He travels to wherever he's called, by people who are being haunted by ghosts and want them gone, because these aren't your friendly grandmas popping up on the end of the bed in the middle of the night; these are killer phantoms, manifesting with grudges and willing to murder those who have crossed them in life. He battles them, physically, and conjures up portals through which he can shove them into the beyond. It's a living.
I liked the characters, I liked their conflict and I liked the concept that underpins the story. In fact, this is a very easy book to like, to the degree that it's almost fair to call it 'inoffensive' or 'safe'. Tris has a rather fatalistic aspect to him and we find ourselves adopting that philosophy too.
Sure, he may find himself fighting dangerous spirits at great risk to himself and those around him, but it's what he does and it's what he's meant to do. If he's killed in the doing, as he never is because this is surely his series, then so be it. That approach removes much of the tension that ought to be present in these scenes; instead of fearing for our lead, we wonder abstractly if any of the characters around him, about none of whom we care a whit, are going to die in his stead. I visualised this entire book, for some reason, in black and white, except for those supporting nobodies who all seemed to wear red shirts.
I liked the situations in which Tris finds himself too. First up is a village haunting, in which he has not only to dispatch the ghost but to figure out who's calling her back first. It's a mystery, hardly deep but enjoyable nonetheless, and it works well as a background to build conflict between Tris and Mari, a new companion he picks up on the road, even though he knows immediately that she's also a shapeshifter; she quickly becomes useful as his translator in a world with many languages and dialects. Then, off they go to Solodran, a huge walled city, to track back from that first ghost to whoever created it in the city's northern barracks, where they defend their nation from neighbouring warlords. This is a mystery too, but a deeper one and a more brutal and twisted one that isn't about simple good and evil.
In fact, I liked almost everything about this book, except how it was written. It's too easy, too nice and too calm. This world screams out for more everything and the Hendees seem unwilling to comply; this appears to be marketed as an adult novel, but it reads like YA. But for a few prostitutes in Solodran, none of whom actually ply their trade within these pages, it's sexless, emotionless and devoid of any passion. Death isn't far away at any point, but there's no thunder to be found with it; the death here is all quiet inevitability, even when it's twisted. The framework is here, but it's missing the balls to give it life.
I enjoyed the book but closed the covers on the last page feeling utterly unaffected. I wasn't bored at all, but this sort of material should have grabbed me by the throat or the testicles or both and instead it just patted me politely on the shoulder and walked away. I'm not entirely uninterested in the follow-up, but I'm not expecting much from it. I'm more interested at this point in picking up 'Dhampir' to see if there used to be fire in the furnace of the 'Noble Dead'. You just don't write a dozen plus books in one world if you don't care about it. Right? ~~ Hal C F Astell