In her debut novel, Laura Bickle introduces us to Anya Kalinczyk, a woman as troubled as her home city of Detroit. Like many of her sister urban-fantasy heroines, Anya has a tragic past and uses it as a reason to push people away. She works as an arson investigator with the Detroit Fire Department and moonlights with a ghost-hunting team. Anya is a Lantern, which means she has the rare ability to consume ghosts and demons. She also has a familiar spirit, Sparky, a fire elemental who takes amphibian form but acts more like a large dog. (Sparky, needless to say, is adorable.)
A serial arsonist is targeting what seem to be random buildings in the city. Anya discovers that the crimes are ritualistic in nature, and that the perp is planning a grand finale on Devil’s Night, just two weeks away. This plotline is exceedingly well done. The investigation scenes are fascinating. The arsonist harbors utopian dreams of urban renewal, and while his methods are despicable, his motives are more complex than is usual in a villain. Bickle incorporates mythology in a really interesting way, mostly Babylonian but with a nifty tie-in to a famous Native American monument. I don’t quite “buy” what happens with the villain at the end, but for the most part, this strand of the plot is great. Together with the wonderful character of Sparky, the investigation makes Embers a compelling read.
The second plotline is less successful. This strand deals with Anya’s spirit-eating talent. While on an assignment with her ghost-hunting colleagues, Anya becomes possessed by a demon. This plotline does tie in with the arson plotline in places, but in other places the fit is iffy. It almost feels like Bickle had two novels and two heroines in her head, and then decided to merge them.
The demon story isn’t internally consistent, either. When Mimiveh is possessing the teenage girl, she causes the girl to act out by destroying things and threatening to burn the house down. But when Mimiveh goes into Anya, suddenly she is a sex demon. Bickle could have done a lot with the creepiness of a fifteen-year-old possessed by a sex demon, or if she’d found that idea too disturbing, Mimiveh could have inhabited another grown woman before attaching herself to Anya. Either way, it would have seemed more consistent than what actually happens. As it is, Mimiveh comes across as a plot device to get Anya in touch with her sexuality, an ardeur of sorts, and the eventual resolution of this aspect is anticlimactic.
Which brings me to the romantic elements. Anya has two potential love interests. One of the romantic subplots jumps to sex abruptly enough that I checked to see if I’d missed a page by accident; the other romantic subplot jumps to the L-word without enough buildup, in my opinion, to justify it. And one of Anya’s suitors is just too amoral. I could kind of understand why Anya was drawn to him, but at the same time I wanted to see her muster up the strength to resist him earlier than she did.
That said, Embers is worth reading for its well-executed A-plot. I will definitely be checking out the next book in this series, Sparks.