Friday, November 13, 2009

"Bitter Night" by Diana Pharaoh Francis

Title: "Bitter Night"
Author: Diana Pharaoh Francis
Pages: 400
Genre: Horror
Standalone/Series: Book 1 in the “Horngate Witches” series
Publisher: Pocket Books

“Bitter Night” came from Pocket Books in order for me to participate in the book’s promo tour, which started three days ago on November the 13th. Since it came a bit too late I have had limited time to read it and thus the delay, but the postal service is for a strange reason delivering closer to my needs.

What we have here is an urban fantasy series debut as well as genre debut for the traditional fantasy writer Diana Pharaoh Francis. As such it is introductory to the world and characters and as urban fantasy offers action, a new version of the hidden world lurking in our realm as well as diversified array of enemies and magic. Surprisingly we have no vampires, which for me is a great strength, but the prose didn’t quite capture me and the alpha-alpha romance felt contrived.

Once, Max dreamed of a career, a home, a loving family. Now all she wants is freedom…and revenge. A witch named Giselle transformed Max into a warrior with extraordinary strength, speed, and endurance. Bound by spellcraft, Max has no choice but to fight as Giselle’s personal magic weapon — a Shadowblade — and she’s lethally good at it. But her skills are about to be put to the test as they never have before….

The ancient Guardians of the earth are preparing to unleash widespread destruction on the mortal world, and they want the witches to help them. If the witches refuse, their covens will be destroyed, including Horngate, the place Max has grudgingly come to think of as home. Max thinks she can find a way to help Horngate stand against the Guardians, but doing so will mean forging dangerous alliances — including one with a rival witch’s Shadowblade, who is as drawn to Max as she is to him — and standing with the witch she despises. Max will have to choose between the old life she still dreams of and the warrior she has become, and take her place on the side of right — if she survives long enough to figure out which side that is….

I will start with the pluses and how Francis breaks from the typical urban fantasy mode. As I have already mentioned vampires and werewolves don’t resurface and even more unorthodox is the narration, which happens in third person point of view and is split between Max and Alexander, the former Prime Shadowblade for the rival witch Selange. The balance between action and romance has been shifted and a lot more focus has been given on collaboration rather than conflict, which has been at the centre of urban fantasy relationships. Max and Alex are partners and not mortal enemies and the friendship rings true. However the chemistry is what I had problems with. For starters Max and Alex felt to me better as partners rather than lovers and whatever intimacy they had didn’t felt all that natural.

Apart from that Francis has accomplished to craft the interconnecting web of relationships between the main protags and the secondary cast in order for “Bitter Night” to function as a fast-paced and exclusively character-driven story. Max stands on a crossroad that is not as easy to decide upon. On one end there is her freedom, which will wash away the violation she Giselle inflicted on her body and soul, but gaining freedom would mean losing her home and the people that made her care again. The Horngate coven conveys unity and a warrior family based on loyalty. It’s a vivid and electrified environment.

Outside the coven however is a grim and gritty world, which is a must-have in any urban fantasy series. The clashing territorial battles are lead by immortal witches, who range in their source to gather power and their personal bodyguards, the Shadowblades, warriors that fight and kill during the night and the Sunspears, warriors who fight during the day, but night is fatal to them. However the witches here are not the benevolent Wicca witches, but the rather wicked bed time story witches that although look like Desperate Housewives editions are quite handy with torture and back stabbing scheming plots. The magic system is broad and yet consistent and all of this offers multiple refreshing surprises for readers and the desired action.

However there are downers to this novel. For starters this is highly personal, so I don’t expect people to second that, but the prose didn’t do anything for me. It was ordinary leaning over to be bland at places, especially when the repetitions came. Max raising her mental shields for I don’t know which time annoyed me near the end. The concept helped me get through, but that didn’t last long as well. After the middle Francis disrupted all concern in me for her characters and I just didn’t get as excited as I should be when the big guns blasted off announcing the climax. Max and Alex had been on the brink of dying for far too many times and even at their lowest they still manage to avoid death, so after awhile you stop worrying and just know that their strong will and fortitude will help them pull through the day. Ultimately it made me lose the needed suspense to be blown away from the last fight and the master plan hatched or the crucial decision Max had to make.

I am conflicted about this one. On one side I have a new world that is vampire free and magic loaded, which fits perfectly with my tastes, but at the same time there are elements that don’t appeal to me. It certainly is worth the shot, because I cheer for diversity and given time maybe the problems I had would be resolved with the upcoming volumes.

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