fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Diana Pharaoh Francis Horngate Witches 1. Bitter NightCrimson Wind by Diana Pharaoh Francis

Reading a Horngate Witches book is a bit like watching a big summer movie. Action! Explosions! Impossibly tough characters doing awesome things! It’s a heck of a ride. Crimson Wind, the second installment in the series, is better than the first and quite enjoyable.

Crimson Wind benefits, in part, from my having read Bitter Night and gotten an idea of what to expect from the series. These really aren’t much like the usual urban fantasies. Some of Diana Pharaoh Francis’s changes to the formula are excellent, but they can be jarring if you go in with the wrong expectations. The primary setting is neither a gritty city nor a quaint small town but an isolated mountain stronghold; the supernatural beings are unusual for the genre; Max is abrasive even by urban fantasy standards; and the story is told in third person through the eyes of two narrators. In addition, Crimson Wind proves Francis is not creating a world perennially on the verge of apocalypse but never quite getting there, nor is she creating a post-apocalyptic world. This is a during-the-apocalypse world. I think I gasped aloud when a well-known landmark went kaboom partway through the book. Francis is not afraid to blow up the scenery and change the world right before our eyes.

Familiarity with the series’ unique setting isn’t the only reason I liked this one better, though. The main issues I had with Bitter Night were that I couldn’t connect to Max and didn’t find the romantic subplot convincing. Here, Francis fleshes out Max further, showcasing both of the central facets of her personality — her reflexive anger and her selfless heroism — and making her likable despite her razor-sharp tongue. Her nascent relationship with Alexander feels more fully drawn too, and this time around the physical attraction and the hint of a deeper connection really come through the pages.

The impetus for the plot is that Max learns her mortal family in California is in danger. She takes Alexander with her and travels there, both of them dogged by dire visions and prophecies. Along the way they encounter some of the chaos kicked up by the Guardians and try to save people whenever they can. These adventures are suspenseful and reveal aspects of Max’s personality, and her eventual reunion with her family is deeply emotional for Max and for the reader.

Francis keeps the focus squarely on what Max and Alexander personally witness. On the one hand, I like this. It adds to the immediacy of their mission and helps keep the story personal rather than making it a big-picture story. On the other hand, once in a while I wished Max would turn on the car radio and at least give us a brief hint of what is happening in the rest of the world as the Guardians rise.

Crimson Wind ends on a cliffhanger and will leave readers wanting more and wondering how Max will get herself out of her current pickle. If anyone can do it, it’s Max…

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…

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  • Kelly Lasiter

    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.