Friday, February 09, 2007

The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson

I was one of 20 lucky people to get advanced reader copies of this book, the first of a new series. Pettersson says the book belongs to the dark urban fantasy genre on her Web site. I didn't know much about that genre by name, but it seems to be linked with writers like Kim Harrison, Laurel Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and others (none of whom have I read or know much about). It's a blending of horror, fantasy and romance elements. "The Scent of Shadows" has a little of all of that, as well as mystery, but I don't think the book would be misplaced if you called it simply fantasy or horror.

The book is the story of Joanna Archer, a young heiress of a casino fortune living in Las Vegas. She has a past marred by extreme violence. The book begins with probably the worst blind date in history. From there, the book moves at a rapid pace, introducing the reader to Joanna's life and then quickly destroying it as Joanna finds out who she really is.

She's a superhero, of sorts. She belongs to a group known as the Zodiac that participates in a war between Light and Shadow. She falls in with the Light side, but in the process loses much that is important to her. (I'm trying to stay vague here, because there are plenty of plot twists and turns that I would rather not spoil.) The new life she is faced with, after the one she has known for 25 years is destroyed, is a great choice on Pettersson's part. Trapped in another lifestyle outside her own experience causes Joanna to know herself better, and the reader right along with her.

The book is at its best when navigating the twists and turns of the plot. Pettersson writes action scenes that could be transcribed directly into a movie with martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (though Joanna's fighting style of choice is Krav Maga). She keeps those scenes moving quickly without ever losing the reader.

But Pettersson also takes plenty of time to explore Joanna's psyche. In particular, she explores the nature of violence, how it changed Joanna's life and how Joanna has used it since. In fact, for a book about superheros who can't be hurt, the book delves deeply into the effects of violence. Almost every main character in the book has been traumatized by violence in their past, and each of them reacts in their own way.

Pettersson's prose is typical commercial fiction. It hits high points when Joanna unleashes her sharp tongue:

Ajax's reptilian features had rearranged themselves as I spoke, and he now looked like a glowering python. "Thanks for the psychoanalysis, babe," he spat, "but all I really wanted from this weekend were a couple of easy lays."
This, I assumed was where I was supposed to throw my wine in his face. I didn't, though. I like Chateau Le Pin, and took a long, considering slip of the vintage '82 I'd made him buy. "And what? Your mother wasn't available?"

The prose hits low points when Pettersson gives into cliches such as "the hunter becomes the hunted" and probably the most sappy two paragraphs I've read in a long long time:

I stared past him and outside the window, where dawn waited impatiently. "I guess that's how you knew to leave the door open for me."
"Oh, Jo-Jo," he said, sighing sleepily as he gathered me tight to his body. "It was never closed."
Those low points, though, are few and much of the time I was too caught up in the plot to care.

Despite this being the first part of a series (the second book "The Taste of Night" will be out in April), the book manages to come to a satisfying conclusion, while leaving many mysteries and plot threads waiting to be resolved in future books.

If you're looking for a smart, action-packed novel that's not afraid of emotion, you won't go wrong with "The Scent of Shadows."

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