Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.80 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.58 / 5.00

Joanna Archer’s life was perfectly happy until she was sixteen. Then she was attacked in the desert not far from her home in Las Vegas, raped and beaten. The attacker assumed she would die, but miraculously she didn’t: she survived, though her life was never the same again. Her mother disappeared and left her with her father, Xavier, who despises her, and her sister, Olivia, who loves her unconditionally. Now she is an edgy photographer, seeking out the seedier side of Sin City but constantly on her guard.

Then, just before her twenty-fifth birthday, her life is turned on its head again. She encounters Ajax Sand on a blind date, which rapidly moves from dull to terrifying as he reveals that she is a warrior in a battle between the forces of Light and Shadow. He is a Shadow warrior and has been hunting her for years, with the sole intention of killing her, slowly and painfully. She escapes from him, but over the next twenty-four hours her life goes from bad to worse. She discovers that Xavier is not her real father, she encounters a weird homeless man who can heal after being run over and her childhood sweetheart tries to reconnect with her. Then she heads to Olivia’s apartment to celebrate her birthday and they are attacked by yet another Shadow warrior . . .

Joanna learns that she is a pivotal figure in prophecies that the Light will finally defeat the Shadows: she is the Kairos, born of both Light and Shadow. The warriors on both sides are designated by the signs of the zodiac, and have some characteristics associated with their sign. For example, Joanna is the Light Sagittarius, and so is gifted with a magical crossbow. The appearance of the Kairos is the First Sign of the Zodiac, suggesting that the prophecy is being fulfilled.

The cover of the book cites endorsements by Diana Gabaldon, Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris, so I anticipated a good read here. Certainly, there are many good things to say about this book, but it does have some significant problems, as least as far as I am concerned.

The central character, Joanna, is a strong female, who has survived a terrible assault to become a reasonably normal adult. The book is written in the first person, so we get a great insight into her thoughts and feelings, and she is a generally sympathetic character, so I was invested in finding out more about her and her past. The other characters are mostly well drawn and there are some nice relationships: I especially liked her barbed sparring with Olivia’s BFF, Cher. However, I felt like Chandra, as “the angry competitor for her role who hates her at first but then has to grudgingly admit that she’s quite good” was more than a little generic, even down to the fact that Rachel mistook her for a man at first. Unlike Renee at Fangs For the Fantasy, I didn’t get a sense that Chandra was actually intersexual: I thought she was female, but looked very masculine, so I didn’t find Joanna’s ‘hermaphrodite’ digs as offensive. We shall see if this is resolved in later books, but I will now pay special attention to Chandra in light of Renee’s analysis.

The world that Ms Pettersson builds is mostly believable, and quite well detailed. The zodiac theme feels a little forced and I would have liked some reason why the warriors are identified by the signs. There is talk of them being a separate race from humans, but some more details would have helped this to seem less random. I was also confused as to the true number of the warriors: it sometimes reads as if there is a set in each town or city, but then that makes Joanna’s role as the Kairos seem a bit strange. Also, I really struggled with the instruction manuals for being an agent for either side being produced and kept in a comic store: this made very little sense and was almost reason for me to stop reading. I agree with Shara at Calico Reactions that this was just silly and was a major stumbling block. Hopefully, these problems will be addressed in the later books. One aspect that I really did like is the Light’s use of cats as guardians because they can identify Shadow warriors: this is a nice way to incorporate our perception of cats and their supposedly supernatural powers . . . little Tiddles doesn’t like that guy down the street because he is an agent of the Shadows!

My biggest issue with this book was the pacing. I almost gave up with it several times during the first two thirds because it was so heavy with exposition and so slowly plotted. Fortunately, the plot reaches a turning point, after which Joanna starts to kick some ass and the pace picks up nicely. I understand the need to establish the world, the characters, etc., but this was very hard going, and I spoke to several people who had given up before getting to the turning point. I hope, again, that this is not an issue in the later books. Having looked at a few reviews, I was relieved to see that Thea at The Book Smugglers had similar reservations about this title. 

This is not your traditional vamp-ridden urban fantasy, and that is refreshing. Plus, it is nice to have a heroine who is grumpy and paranoid, but has a really good reason to be like that: the assault robs her of her innocence, her mother and her boyfriend, so we can forgive her for being very defensive. It is a little rough around the edges, however, I am glad that I stuck with the book as it has great promise and it seems that this is her first published novel, so I can cut the author some slack: I am looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

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