Bitter Night: An urban fantasy that takes a lot of risks

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Diana Pharaoh Francis Horngate Witches 1. Bitter NightBitter Night by Diana Pharaoh Francis

In Bitter Night, Diana Pharaoh Francis introduces an unusual urban-fantasy heroine. Max is a Shadowblade, a super-powered warrior bound to serve a witch and her coven. Enslaved against her will, Max has loathed Giselle, her witch, for decades. Yet she finds herself working alongside Giselle, and other unlikely allies, when the Guardians (gods) plan an attack on the human race and threaten to destroy any coven that won’t help them.

What I liked about Bitter Night: First of all, the concept of Shadowblades (and their day-dwelling counterparts, the Sunspears) is unique. Second, I liked the themes of honor, debt, and freedom that Francis explores. Max’s determination to help various characters escape their supernatural bindings reminds me a bit of the ending of Charles de Lint’s Jack the Giant-Killer, which I loved.

Fans of action-packed, high-octane urban fantasy will find a lot to like here. I feel like I’ve just experienced the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster! Bitter Night features heaps of violence and gore. The gore was maybe a little too much for me. The Shadowblades’ preternatural healing abilities enable Francis to dish out unbelievable injuries to her characters and still have them bounce back. Some of the injuries result from fighting, some from torture. Torture seems to be almost a sport to Francis’ witches. They torture their own Shadowblades for fun and “practice,” and when they want to challenge their rivals, they torture the other witches’ Shadowblades as a form of competition. This is definitely not a book for the squeamish!

The real problem I ran into with Bitter Night, though, is that I felt a little distant from Max. This is in part due to Francis’ unusual decisions regarding point of view. Most urban fantasies are written in the first person, and most of the rest are written in third person but still told exclusively from the heroine’s perspective. Bitter Night is written in the third person, and roughly half of the story is written from the male lead’s point of view.

But there’s also the issue of Max’s fellow Shadowblades. Her loyalty to them, and their devotion to her, is a big part of what makes Max tick. Yet I never felt like I knew these people very well. We learn a lot about Max’s enslavement by Giselle, and a lot about her present-day situation, but not much about the intervening years, during which the bond between Max and her Blades developed. We don’t get much personal backstory about these Blades, either. Since these characters are so important to Max, knowing them better would help the reader know Max better. Perhaps this will happen in the sequels.

The romance didn’t really click with me, either. Don’t get me wrong — Max and Alexander make a great team. I can feel the respect and admiration between them, and it’s clear that they work well as friends and colleagues. But their chemistry doesn’t really come through the page. So whenever one of them had a thought about how attracted they were to the other, it would startle me for a moment, and then I’d think, Oh, right, this is the romantic subplot.

However, I loved Francis’ decision to have Max in a position of authority over Alexander for much of the novel. For a supposedly female-driven subgenre, there are a lot of urban fantasy worlds, and urban fantasy couples, that are male-dominated. This is not one of them!

Bitter Night is an urban fantasy that takes a lot of risks. The results are mixed, but I can unequivocally say that it’s not a carbon copy of anything else I’ve read.

Horngate Witches — (2009-2012) Publisher: SOMETIMES YOU CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. AND SOMETIMES, THEY CHOOSE YOU… Once, Max dreamed of a career, a home, a loving family. Now all she wants is freedom… and revenge. A witch named Giselle transformed Max into a warrior with extraordinary strength, speed, and endurance. Bound by spellcraft, Max has no choice but to fight as Giselle’s personal magic weapon — a Shadowblade — and she’s lethally good at it. But her skills are about to be put to the test as they never have before… The ancient Guardians of the earth are preparing to unleash widespread destruction on the mortal world, and they want the witches to help them. If the witches refuse, their covens will be destroyed, including Horngate, the place Max has grudgingly come to think of as home. Max thinks she can find a way to help Horngate stand against the Guardians, but doing so will mean forging dangerous alliances — including one with a rival witch’s Shadowblade, who is as drawn to Max as she is to him andstanding with the witch she despises. Max will have to choose between the old life she still dreams of and the warrior she has become, and take her place on the side of right — if she survives long enough to figure out which side that is…

Diana Pharaoh Francis Horngate Witches 1. Bitter Night 2. Crimson WindDiana Pharaoh Francis Horngate Witches 1. Bitter Night 2. Crimson WindShadow Cityfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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