Cherie Priest gets Big Imagination points for the potent magical artifacts she conjures up in Hellbent, the second Cheshire Red Reports novel. I’m not going to spoil the fun for you by telling you what they are; you’ll know by the end of the first chapter.
Priest introduced vampire thief Raylene Pendle in Bloodshot, along with Raylene’s charges, two street kids who were squatting in one of her warehouses; and Ian, a vampire who has been mysteriously blinded and can control the weather. We also met Raylene’s new sometimes-partner Adrian, an ex-Navy SEAL who is also a drag queen. Adrian/Sister Rose is one of the best urban fantasy sidekicks around. He’s tough, badass and really knows how to accessorize. This time, he’s willing to help Raylene because she might help him find his vampire sister.
Raylene’s assignment, as Hellbent opens, is to acquire a cigar box full of artifacts for her agent Horace. This simple assignment goes wrong, big-time, when she finds the owner dead and gets out of the house seconds before it is struck by lightning.
I ran anyway, and when I’d barely reached the end of the driveway where the mailbox leaned at a rakish angle, a blinding column of jagged white heat snapped down from those boiling clouds and struck the satellite dish on the roof. The ensuing crack sent shrapnel of metal, plastic, and roofing tiles flying in every direction, and it made my ears ring all the way to my brain.
Raylene does manage to save an adorable kitten from the conflagration — we’ll ignore the fact that the victim didn’t seem much like a kitten guy — but the artifacts are long gone.
The book alternates between the search for the cigar box and a more elaborate vampire-related plot. Ian is being called back by his San Francisco House, the mafia-like political structure vampires use. The death of his vampire father makes him the judge, or ruler of the house, but his brother plans to challenge him. Ian is at a disadvantage because of his blindness. To make things more precarious, William Renner, the dead vampire, died at the Atlanta house, which is run by the Barringtons. The Barringtons have a reputation for craziness even by bloodsucker standards.
I’m tired of the mafia vampire theme, and the Atlanta sequences in this book reminded me too much of Charlaine Harris’s work. The artifacts and the sorceress who took them, on the other hand, grabbed my interest by the neck and did not let go. The sorceress is not only powerful, she is a real rocket scientist, and seriously crazy. She is at first a physical threat to Raylene, but then something more insidious happens when Raylene begins to identify with her. Far from being the typical “monologuing” villain, Elizabeth Creed is a thoughtful person who knows she is mentally ill. For someone who intends to do a lot of damage out of a need to make things right, she is quick to point out Raylene’s own lack of compassion, when they have a conversation at the Houston Space Center:
“You want to sit here and watch me tear down a building with a tropical storm and its accompanying tornadoes, killing perhaps hundreds of people, just because you’ve never seen it before?”
“When you put it that way, it sounds callous,” I agreed. “But you’re the one talking about… really? A tropical storm and tornadoes?”
Priest writes good tropical storms, and the one in Hellbent is a doozy. She also has a great ear for dialogue, and the near-constant bickering between Raylene and Adrian is made bearable because of this. There is one poignant moment where Raylene mourns the loss of a Chanel dress. She reminds us that while the dress would be called vintage now, she bought it when it was new and she was young. The dress is damaged beyond repair in the storm, and Raylene feels a hint of sadness at this loss of another link to her human youth.
The last section of the book takes place in Atlanta, and while the action sequences are great, this was the least interesting, least plausible part of the book for me. Despite several pages of expository dialogue shoveled into a scene between Raylene and the Barrington family’s hired help, I don’t think Priest ever really sold the Barringtons as threatening enough. Again, tiresome vampire politics and jockeying for influence reminds me too much of True Blood.
Hellbent was still an invigorating read with laugh-out-loud moments, and, at the end of the day, any urban fantasy heroine with a partner who can set a C4 charge, scale a building, and help her with her make-up is okay in my book.