Something a little different this month with this modern urban fantasy crime series. I wasn’t originally going to put these in a spotlight; they’re a decent example of the genre and a good read, but I didn’t think they were anything exceptional, until I had two quite strong reactions to certain plot beats. It’s rare for books to catch me like that any more and for that alone they deserve some time to shine.
And really, there is a lot to recommend them. The author has written a lot of books that I’ll probably end up checking out sooner or later, but we’re focusing on these – Under Dark Skies, Fracture Five, The Atlas Defect, Ember and Echo, Salvage, Garden of Bone, and the upcoming The Camelot Gambit.
The basic premise is an FBI division, NightShade (I admit the capitalisation grates on me a little) staffed by agents with supernatural abilities, though many of the crimes they investigate are completely mundane and ordinary. It’s been done, but this is definitely the best take I’ve read. The author’s background is forensics and biology, and it shows; the detail comes from experience rather than research and it makes it feel natural and real.
The various agents all come from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, so discussions of crime scenes and evidence end up being natural-sounding explanations rather than stilted ‘as you know, Bob’ exposition or endless inner monologues. I genuinely felt like I was learning things, which is neat. I’m (hopefully) never going to need to know how to start to identify racial heritage from teeth or estimating age from assorted bones, but you never know when that sort of thing might come in useful.
One of our two main protagonists, Donovan Heath, is a werewolf (except he hates the word) and I was very impressed by the series’ take on them. Every aspect of how he shifts into a wolf is medically explained – in-story Donovan is a medical examiner who primarily went into biology to understand what he was and how it worked. There’s a lot of great science nerdery modelling everything, from elongated shoulder blades and tendons that don’t anchor to quite the same places on various bones to points in his skull where the plates never fused as he grew and the precise way most of his joints are double-jointed, and it makes it feel really plausible. I’ve read a hell of a lot of werewolf fiction over the years and this is definitely the best planned and explained (though there’s a lot to be said for ‘fuck it, it’s magic’ as well).
Our other main protagonist, Eleri Eames, is… well, we’re not completely sure yet, six books in. She’s still learning what she is and what she can do. She’s in NightShade due mostly to supernaturally good hunches, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and her arc is mainly concerned with recurring dreams of her sister who was kidnapped as a child. Recent events are pushing more strongly towards voodoo, and while I’m no expert on the subject, thus far everything seems as well researched and carefully detailed as everything else has been.
There is romance, but shockingly not with each other, and mostly offscreen. It’s actually a nice change of pace. The leads manage to develop a really close bond that is 100% platonic, and there’s very little relationship drama of any kind. What there is feels natural and not overblown and is dealt with sensibly.
Side characters include another werewolf, various flavours of psychic (including one who made me genuinely uncomfortable when her power was explained, the first of the two reactions I mentioned at the start; I was very impressed by the creepiness) and more recently a couple of vanilla but very useful humans. The agent in charge is certainly telekinetic, jury’s still out on what else he can do.
Each book deals with ostensibly separate cases, but they do gradually begin to tie together as the series goes on to form a bigger picture. I’m not sure how it’s going to continue since book six ended with one of the major plot threads being resolved, but I’m interested in finding out, which is always a good sign.