The Chicagoland Vampires series started out fairly light and has gradually become darker. The unpretentious, easily digestible writing style is still in effect, and humor is still present, but Merit’s troubles have increased in complexity and the emotional stakes have been steadily raised. Hard Bitten is the fourth in the series and the darkest so far. Chloe Neill brings together a number of previously introduced plot arcs, and all hell breaks loose.
Merit is touched by Ethan’s recent gestures but still wary of him after their breakup in Twice Bitten. She doesn’t have much time for romantic angst, though, because Cadogan House is in trouble. The events of the past few books have put Cadogan, Ethan, and Merit on the radar of both the human and vampire authorities. We’ve been following Merit intimately, so we know she’s been trying her best to solve problems rather than create them, but to the outside observer, it looks like Cadogan is the epicenter of all the drama. The last straw is a super-violent vampire rave that leaves three women dead. Now, unless Ethan gets his House in order, Mayor Tate will have Ethan arrested and Darius, leader of the vampires’ Greenwich Presidium, will place Cadogan in receivership. Merit’s role as Sentinel is to solve the rave mystery and clear her House’s name.
The plot is the type of twisty mystery we’ve come to expect from Neill, with a healthy dose of character development: many of the series’ recurring characters are changing and evolving as a result of the new roles they have assumed. Hard Bitten also revisits some questions raised in book one — why was Merit targeted for attack, anyway, and how did Ethan know to be there? — and provides answers that are sometimes shocking. But the biggest shock is the ending, a huge sucker punch of a development that may also be a cliffhanger.
I say “may be a cliffhanger,” because I don’t know if Neill will “fix” this situation or if it will be permanent. Genre expectations and a few intriguing hints make me think all is not as bleak as it appears. I look forward to finding out, either way. All I know is that if it’s a cliffhanger, it’s a seriously evil one… and that we’re lucky we only have to wait until November for book five, Drink Deep.