Nine of Stars: An intriguing start to a new trilogy

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Laura Bickle's Nine of Stars fantasy book reviewsNine of Stars by Laura Bickle fantasy book reviewsNine of Stars by Laura Bickle

Nine of Stars (2016), Laura Bickle‘s dark and fantastical tale of an alchemist’s daughter in Wyoming, is attempting to cast a wide net as far as its readership goes. It is billed as both the third instalment of the DARK ALCHEMY trilogy, as well as the first book in the WILDLANDS series, which readers can jump straight into. What’s more, it’s a fantasy-cum-crime-cum-romance, so it should in theory be ticking a lot of boxes for a lot of readers. Jana and Ray have once again joined forces in this review, so in the interest of clarity, we’ve marked Jana’s contributions in black whilst Ray’s are in blue.

Jana: Petra Dee is a geologist living in the small town of Temperance, Wyoming; she spends her days taking rock samples in Yellowstone Park and hanging out with her coyote companion, Sig. She also happens to be the daughter of a skilled alchemist, but seems to be mostly focused on science and its effects on the physical world, a focus she’ll need after her recent leukemia diagnosis. Her supernaturally-inclined boyfriend, Gabriel Manget, worked on a local ranch owned by Sal Rutherford until one mysterious night, when Sal was murdered and the rest of the ranch hands disappeared. And Owen Rutherford, local sheriff and Sal’s cousin, is desperate to find answers after discovering some extremely strange circumstances surrounding Sal’s death and an underground cavern on the Rutherford ranch.

Dark Alchemy Kindle Edition by Laura Bickle (Author)

First book in DARK ALCHEMY trilogy

Meanwhile, a wolf pack within the park boundaries is being targeted by a malevolent force known as Skinflint Jack, which seems to be some kind of elk-man hybrid, and who leaves behind grisly bundles made of sticks and wolf hides. Petra and Gabe take it upon themselves to look into the wolf-slayings at the same time as Owen begins his investigation into Gabe’s involvement with Sal’s death, chasing the pair through the pages of Nine of Stars in the pursuit of justice and, incidentally, clarity regarding his own family history.

Ray: Jana and I were both in agreement that Skinflint Jack makes for a menacing antagonist, but the fact was, he was introduced before either of us really had time to become fully invested in the characters, so Bickle lost the impact he could’ve made had she just waited a little longer in his reveal. There needed to be a little more time spent on figuring out the characters’ motivations and why we should care about them before they face their mythical nemesis. This probably would’ve shed a little more light on Skinflint Jack’s own motivations, which always makes for a more compelling baddie.

Jana: I spent a few vacations in Yellowstone Park as a kid, so I can vouch that there are mineral pools and hot springs all over the place, though most of them aren’t safe to climb into and swim around in. (People seriously need to stop doing this.)  And I did appreciate Bickle’s insistence that science, rather than alchemy, would be the solution to Petra’s leukemia, since I detest when fantasy authors magically wish away very real problems and illnesses.

Owen’s chapters were the most compelling and interesting, and it was easy for me to empathize with him because he sees himself as an agent of the law; all he’s trying to do is answer some questions so he can close a murder case.  From his point of view, Petra and Gabe are deliberately evading him, so they must be up to no good.  All of it made perfect sense, even the visitations from Anna, the ghost of the girl whose murder kicked off Owen’s police career. Petra and Gabe are likeable enough, and I appreciated that they each bring something different to their investigation of Skinflint Jack: Gabe’s immersion into alchemy and Petra’s grounding in natural science each get equal play, and both are crucial to the storyline. And adding the sections of perspective from Nine, a female member of the wolfpack, was a neat touch.

Mercury Retrograde: A Dark Alchemy Novel Kindle Edition by Laura Bickle (Author)

Second book in DARK ALCHEMY trilogy

Ray: Owen’s chapters arguably propelled this novel. For new readers of the series jumping straight in, he provides a nice foil to the mythological backstory we haven’t really had adequate time to invest in yet. In a story with an increasingly complicated fantastical history, it was really satisfying to have something, his hallucinations, initially attributed to human paranoia and disturbance, and his less than perfect character made him highly relatable. His chapters make the gritty police procedural plot, and for those readers that like a good mystery, they’ll appreciate Owen’s increasing obsession with the murder of his cousin.

Bickle’s prose is initially quite absorbing and it’s easy to be drawn in by the distinctive voices of each of the characters, but I found myself increasingly frustrated by the writing style as the story progressed. Bickle had to rely heavily on exposition to catch readers up with the previous novels, particularly as her story relies so heavily on the mythology from the past series. Where it should’ve been concise, the writing felt a little waffley at times, and I couldn’t help but feel that paragraphs should’ve had a little more pruning here and there.

Jana: As we’ve said, Nine of Stars is simultaneously the third book in the DARK ALCHEMY trilogy (after Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, both published electronically in 2015) and the first installment in the WILDLANDS series, shifting from digital distribution to print. This provided an obvious difficulty for Bickle: she needed to please established fans by continuing the characters and plotlines established in two previous novels, and at the same time, she needed to accommodate new readers by providing exposition and establishing who the characters and their situations are. It’s an unenviable position, and I think she did the best she could, but Nine of Stars suffers from being too vague in some sections and too expository in others. In particular, emotionally-fraught scenes between Petra and Gabe regarding the future of their partnership didn’t have as much of an impact on me because I didn’t have the background knowledge of watching their relationship grow and change during the preceding books. I’m sure these issues will smooth out in further books, but they do make for a rocky start.

Ray: If there’s one thing that’s going to let this novel down, it’s the fact that readers are asked to jump straight in at this point in the story. It would’ve been a much more satisfying read had readers been prepared to have some gaps in their knowledge of the story. Jana and I are both in agreement that there is a lot of potential in the story and, despite our gripes with the amount of exposition, we are certainly interested to see where Bickle takes the story and the characters. Now that the mythology of the story has been established, the next instalments of the WILDLANDS series will be able to forge ahead without the clunky backstory.

Nine of Stars by Laura Bickle fantasy book reviewsPublished December 27, 2016. From critically acclaimed author Laura Bickle (Dark Alchemy) comes the first novel in the Wildlands series, NINE OF STARS. Longmire meets Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson in this exciting new series that shows how weird and wonderful the West can truly be. Winter has always been a deadly season in Temperance, but this time, there’s more to fear than just the cold… As the daughter of an alchemist, Petra Dee has faced all manner of occult horrors – especially since her arrival in the small town of Temperance, Wyoming. But she can’t explain the creature now stalking the backcountry of Yellowstone, butchering wolves and leaving only their skins behind in the snow. Rumors surface of the return of Skinflint Jack, a nineteenth-century wraith that kills in fulfillment of an ancient bargain. The new sheriff in town, Owen Rutherford, isn’t helping matters. He’s a dangerously haunted man on the trail of both an unsolved case and a fresh kill – a bizarre murder leading him right to Petra’s partner Gabriel. And while Gabe once had little to fear from the mortal world, he’s all too human now. This time, when violence hits close to home, there are no magical solutions. It’s up to Petra and her coyote sidekick Sig to get ahead of both Owen and the unnatural being hunting them all – before the trail turns deathly cold.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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2 comments

  1. Great review, Jana and Ray! You told me everything I need to know.

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