Armstrong, Kelley: Haunted

Minding the Living

This is the fifth of Kelley Armstrong’s ‘Women of the Otherworld’ books, so wary readers will be forgiven for looking out for ominous signs of failing inspiration or those dread indicators that a series with a cast of recurring characters is about to descend into soap opera. Thankfully, no such flaws are present as a well-thought-out plot builds to a logically satisfactory denouement while still delivering real shocks and audacious twists right up to the conclusion.

The choice of protagonist is an inspired one. We are in the ghost world with Eve Levine, half demon and black witch who was killed before making it onto the pages of the earlier volume Stolen. Death hasn’t stopped her watching over her daughter, Savannah, now the ward of another witch, Paige, whose adventures feature in Dime Store Magic and Industrial Magic. Don’t worry if you haven’t read these books, or if you can’t recall the finer details. Necessary back-story is deftly slipped in as this tale rapidly takes on a fully rounded life of its own. The same light touch swiftly shapes a coherent afterlife with judicious use of established myth and echoes from films and TV series such as Ghost and Angel. This isn’t lack of imagination at work but rather shrewd writing facilitating rapid familiarization. Thus the reader isn’t distracted by working out the ground rules when they should be enjoying this story. And there are plenty of original touches to add depth and texture. Chicago’s ghost world is stuck in its 1920’s heyday, while a visit to Glamis Castle suggests explanations for the British royal family’s peculiarities that even the most extreme tabloids haven’t yet dreamed up.

The tale’s the thing above all else, and as in many supernatural adventures, the Fates are taking a hand in human affairs. Evil is loose; the Nix, who feeds on chaos and death and who’s been prompting vile murders throughout the ages. The Fates hope Eve’s unorthodox background means she will have more success in capturing the creature than the angels who’ve been sent after it so far. An interestingly flawed heroine, well aware that she could do with some redemption, Eve is actually far more concerned with finding a necromancer whom she can convince to put her in touch with Savannah. But she owes the Fates a favor and they are determined to collect. So Eve hunts the Nix, who turns out to believe the best form of defense is attack. Soon Eve is chasing the Nix in desperate hopes of catching up before the creature reaches her own prey.

So far, so simple. Only it isn’t. The Nix can only work through people, so humanity cannot shrug off responsibility for its own evils onto supernatural forces. The seduction of evil, its freedoms and realities, is woven into the fantasy. Where the bloody results are laid out before us, this is exploration, not exploitation, the visceral jolt notwithstanding. Nor are the victims forgotten. Where there is evil, there must be justice and that’s explored as well, along with the nature of punishment and torment. Hell can truly be other people, especially for psychopaths.

Just as the humans that partner the Nix have made their choices, Eve faces hard decisions of her own. Ghosts may be impotent when it comes to interaction with the living, but on their own terms they can enjoy a satisfying sex life. Eve has come to a comfortable accommodation with Savannah’s deceased father Kristof; a relationship that provides wry comic relief offering effective contrast to darker aspects of the story. Hunting the Nix puts all that at risk. And what is Eve to do about Savannah? Is she able to let her daughter go, to grow up and make her own choices and mistakes as her life goes on in a way Eve’s no longer can? Can Eve set aside her own self-indulgent fantasies in the face of this reality? How is she going to explain herself to Paige, her husband Lucas and Jaime the necromancer, once she’s dragged them all into this? All these effectively realized characters and their well-observed relationships add yet another level to this satisfying read.

If you are already a fan of Kelley Armstrong, you’ll enjoy a book that builds on all the strengths of her writing thus far and offers considerable promise for what’s to come. If you haven’t read her before, this is an excellent place to start. If you’ve yet to try what’s becoming the distinct sub-genre of supernatural chick-lit, prepare to be agreeably surprised by a well-crafted piece of writing that certainly shouldn’t be dismissed with disdainful genre labeling.

This review originally appeared in Emerald City.

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