Reviewed: May 21, 2011
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Horngate Witches, Book 2
Rating: 4 stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Print, eBook
It's been four weeks since Max and the Horngate Witches, Shadowblades, and Sunspears fought off the initial attack of the genocidal Guardians, gaining two powerful angels as allies in the aftermath of the melee. Max suffers no delusions, though. She has no doubt that whatever the Guardians have planned next is going to make that battle seem like a picnic in the park as they rid the earth of humans and bring back the magic that has long since slipped from the world.
As Prime to the witch-bitch Giselle, Max is compelled by magic to protect Horngate and defend the Witch to the death. That job would be considerably less complicated if Giselle hadn't given Max over to the godlike entity Max calls Scooter, who is demanding in no uncertain terms that Max fulfill her promise to him and come with him to walk the web between worlds. Not that Max has any idea what that means...or what Scooter is, really. In fact, all she knows is that this is one promise she can't get out of alive...and one that may kill her by fulfilling.
Adding to Max's angst is the need to save the human family that she was ripped away from thirty years ago, as well as her conflicting emotions for Alexander, former Prime of the witch Selange but now freely associated with Horngate and considered one of her Shadowblades. Yeah, nothing quite like being caught between about five different rocks and six hard places to really spice up her life.
Now she's got to make a deal with Scooter for a little more time, then take a road trip through hell - literally - to get her family out of California and back to the relative safety of Horngate. And according to Giselle, she's got to take Alexander along with her to watch her back. If she survives, she has to give herself to Scooter. If she dies, so do many people under her protection. Either way, she's going to end up losing that which is most important to her, her home and the people there. Especially one very proud, very virile Prime who looks at her with emotions in his eyes that terrify her more than Guardians, Scooter, and an impending apocalypse combined.
This strong second installment to the Horngate Witches series was actually a bit more enjoyable a read for me than the first. From a technical standpoint, it's free from several of the issues I had with Bitter Night, with a better balance between description, world definition, mythos, and action. The exposition was thoroughly but succinctly handled, refreshing the minds of readers familiar with the series without weighing them down with an excessive rehash of information they already have, but providing a comprehensive summary of the previous events for readers new to the series. I even found myself much fonder of Alexander, who I had some problems with in the previous book.
Action scenes were plentiful and brutal, and Francis isn't any easier on Max or Alexander in this one. The plot is a little more focused, narrower in scope and mostly encompassing the road trip Max and Alexander go on to get her family. We also get a clearer picture of who Max is and what drives her, and are awarded several tense glimpses at her inner demons. And those are some nasty little buggers.
I do wish we'd have fewer prescient or far-sight prophecies flying around as the series continues. As a reader, I don't like when results of vague prognostication are used as points of conflict or as glimpses of future events. It tends to decrease my emotional investment if I know what's coming - even if I don't necessarily know how it's coming - and it leaves a pall over unfolding events if that glimpse is less than favorable. It can be a useful tool, sure, but in this book it was a plot device used more than once and not always successfully.
At the center of the series is the complex and often conflicted Max, a bitter woman cloaked in barely caged rage at her circumstances, but a woman of strength and valor, with nearly suicidal heroic tendencies, who is just now starting to let some of the people around her in a little bit as she begins to realize how much she cares for them. She yearns for revenge against Giselle, which causes her physical pain, and often her loathing of what was done to her makes her downright frightful, yet her honor is unquestionable and her dedication unwavering.
It's clear from this book that while Giselle and Max may have reached an accord of sorts and agreed to a detente in the first book, neither forgiveness nor acceptance will be on the table any time in the near future. Their unique dynamic and the relationship Max has with her Shadowblades were the most compelling and unique aspects of the series premiere, Bitter Night, and is part of the cause for my perplexity in Crimson Wind, because the plot here precludes much interaction with Giselle or the Blades and Spears. There are several plot threads woven nicely into this book, and I was fascinated by some of the revelations about Max's family, but I'm left feeling a little confused as to the direction of the series given the events of this book, including a scene that introduces two characters that seemed rather superfluous in the big picture, and I'm unsure where the author is going with Max's character.
In fact, several times I found myself frustrated with Max, and wish familiar and fond secondary characters had a larger role to balance out some of the more annoying evidence of her emotional retardation. As much as I think the romantic subplot between Alexander and Max was much better defined and had a ton more emotion in it, the constant friction between them started to get to me after awhile and the rehashing of their different positions started to feel a little repetitive in theme. A bit more variety in characters and conflict would have been appreciated.
Crimson Wind is an odd book in that I enjoyed the story here more than I did Bitter Night, but was left with significant questions about the direction it seems to take the series and a drive to have those questions answered. With a long wait until the December 2011 release of the third book in the series, I'm going to have to be patient for those answers, because regardless of the issues and questions raised by either book, I can't argue that Francis has created a series that is original, fresh, and has a lot of promise. I'm highly motivated to see what comes next.
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