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Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Ancient Prophecy Never Means Good News

There aren’t many constants out there in the world, but one which seems to always hold true is that all of us will never really, truly, get along with each other.
Pessimistic, you say? Okay, fine... guilty as charged. Still, history argues pretty persuasively against the likelihood of any sort of widespread, lasting peace. From the days when cavemen stomped the Earth--when the males battled each other with clubs over who got the biggest hunk of meat from a hunt (survival), or got to claim the healthiest cavewoman (both survival and power), to today--when we still fight over survival and power, plus a whole mess of other things, we’ve proven ourselves to be quite the warmongering species.
So, just imagine what life on Terra Firma would be like if we threw zombies, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, etc., into the mix. (One big party? Um, yeah, not so much.)
Last year we were introduced to just such a mix in Nancy Holzner’s Urban Fantasy Deadtown, the title of which refers to the special, few-block area in Boston reserved for all of the city’s other inhabitants--the “paranormals” and “previously deceased humans”. The fact that  Boston's powers-that-be have seen fit to segregate whole segments of the population--cramming them into a tiny neighborhood from which they aren't allowed to leave without proper identification and forcing on all residents a strict, punishable-by-law curfew--shows that Holzner is equally skeptical about our ability to fully embrace our peace-loving sides.
All too often, though, the ones initiating the fighting are far nastier than those against whom they’ve waved a red flag... and such is the case in this version of Boston, where the majority of real monsters don’t have fangs, sport putrid greenish flesh, or change form thrice monthly. Most of the genuine nasties there are walking around in three-piece suits or police uniforms... and would just as soon do away with all of Deadtown, permanently. (The denizens of Deadtown, on the other hand, more or less do get along with each other.)
That’s no picnic to deal with, but to Victory “Vicky” Vaughn (demon slayer to all of Boston) and the rest of Deadtown’s citizens, it’s just the usual, and everyone there generally tries to avoid conflicts. That is, until a brand-new evil comes to town, in Holzner’s Hellforged...
[Haven’t yet read Deadtown? Read my review here, first... then hie yourself back here, 'kay?]

When we left Vicky last, she--along with her more-exuberant-than-competent, teenage zombie sidekick Tina--had pretty much saved all of Boston from the wrath of her longtime Hellion nemesis, Difethwr, by banishing him back to the fiery pit from whence he came. And, after the usual bouts of publicity following that epic battle, life has pretty much gone back to normal; Vicky is back to fighting assorted baddies all over town by night (like the drudes, which invade people’s dreams for nefarious purposes, and... well, who would have guessed that computer glitches are actually vile little creatures that invade your computer, sucking energy and making everything go haywire?), she still shares an apartment with her vampire roomie Juliet Capulet (yes, that Juliet), and she occasionally (okay, rarely) finds time to see her on-again/off-again werewolf boyfriend. Life is... well, if not good, at least it’s better. (Yeah, almost anything's better than being tortured by a Hellion.)
Strange things start happening, though (as they have a rather nasty habit of doing). After a blissful absence from Vicky’s own dreams, Difethwr reappears, and he seems, if anything, more evil than ever. Around the same time, she discovers one zombie--then another, and another--who have died horribly gruesome, permanent deaths... and she realizes that she knew each one of them and may, in fact, have been the last person to talk with them before they were killed. Her awful realization? That she is the link... that if not for her, these innocent zombies wouldn’t have met their final deaths now... and that somehow--although impossible--the banished Hellion must be behind it all. 
What follows for the poor, beleaguered demon slayer is a miserable, emergency trip to Wales, involving--under strict orders from Aunt Mab, her magical teacher and mother figure there--no sleep whatsoever (and describing it as “copious cups of joe” doesn’t begin to describe the staggering amount of coffee she has to consume), a near-concussion, and a case of delirium. Once Vicky recovers from the ordeal of just getting to the remote Welsh village where Mab lives, though, the news her aunt imparts is far worse: Vicky will, indeed, be facing her worst nightmare, once again. If she has any hope of defeating the forces of evil, she will need to master a weapon that she can’t even (literally) handle, understand a book of prophecies straight from the netherworld (which magically prevents itself from being understood), be prepared to do battle on three different planes of existence (each with their own peculiarities)... and basically do it all singlehandedly. 
Hellforged is a darker tale than Deadtown, with less levity and a considerable ramping-up of the terror. As difficult as Vicky’s primary task was in the first book, it is many times harder, here, and we feel all of her uncertainty, guilt, and sorrow--as well as the physical pain and fear--keenly.
The story is more complex, too, dealing with multiple realities and dream versus waking states, plus more of the very interesting lore. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally frustrating--trying to keep up with how some of the new characters relate to each other as well as going through a lot of training, but ultimately reaches a satisfying conclusion (emotionally and logically) following another epic showdown. Hellforged is a solid entry in Vicky’s saga, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what she gets up to next.
I really, really like how Holzner’s mind works. She writes some great dialogue, and she always presents a fine sense of place or space. She also manages to make me care deeply about the most minor of characters; I was almost unexpectedly saddened by the zombie deaths, despite the fact that Vicky only knew each zombie but slightly. (It’s rare for an author to achieve that kind of connection with a character so soon to be cast aside, but Holzner always manages it.)
Actually, I only have one complaint about Hellforged, but it has nothing to do with the author. The copy in the book is miniscule, making it a real reading challenge. (For someone forced by the constraints of work--and at this time of year, by a crazy holiday schedule--to primarily read very late at night or very early in the morning... in grey, cloudy December... it was seriously hard to get enough light on the pages for my strained eyes to decipher the teensy-tiny print, making for some uncomfortable, less-than-ideal reading.) As printed, Hellforged comes in at 340 pages, but it would have been much more enjoyable as a book with 400+ pages, employing a more reasonably-sized typeface. Getting past that one issue, though, I highly recommend this as a worthy and entertaining sequel.
Catnip Mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

[With sincere thanks to the author and publisher for providing me with the ARC for review. :)] 
       

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