I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I cheat on the fantasy genre. That femme fatale Mystery is often the one who lures me away. This year I’ve been feeling particularly… polygenreous… and Kelley Armstrong’s Omens was just what hit the spot when I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
The CAINSVILLE series is a departure from Armstrong’s previous work in the WOMEN OF THE OTHERWORLD books. It’s heavier on the mystery, lighter on the fantasy, and the heroine, Olivia Taylor-Jones, is more of a “normal human” than Elena and her fellow otherworldly women.
Olivia is a Chicago department-store heiress whose life seems set in its privileged but dull course, until the day she learns she was adopted. And that her birth parents are convicted serial killers. She finds out the same day the paparazzi do, and in short order, both Olivia’s adoptive mother and Olivia’s fiancé prove to be more concerned about themselves in the wake of this bombshell than about how it’s affecting Olivia. So, she decides it’s time to strike out on her own, for the first time in her life.
A series of strange and creepy events lead Olivia to the small — and rather odd — town of Cainsville. There, she experiences things like waiting tables and renting an apartment for the first time, and also begins to manifest a talent for reading omens; i.e. she’ll see a group of birds and be able to sense what they’re predicting for her immediate future. And when she visits her birth mother, Pamela Larsen, in prison, she starts digging into her parents’ alleged murders in the hopes she’ll learn whether they were guilty or innocent. Specifically, in this first book, she investigates the last of the crimes — the one Pamela thinks will be the easiest to prove they didn’t commit.
Olivia is a great, relatable character; her newfound drive toward independence is easy to cheer for, and she’s smart and stubborn and resourceful. She has a teensy ruthless streak, but not enough to make her unlikable. And like most of us, she really wants a loving family. One of the things Armstrong does best here is Olivia’s conflicted feelings about Pamela. Of her adoptive parents, Olivia was closer to her father, now dead, while her mother was more distant. When Olivia and Pamela meet again, Pamela obviously loves her daughter, and Olivia’s initial distaste evolves into an absolutely aching hope that Pamela is innocent so that she can feel OK with loving her back.
Olivia’s partner in trying to solve the case is Gabriel Walsh, Pamela’s lawyer. I’m not completely sure what I think of him yet. Olivia may have a ruthless streak, but in Gabriel it’s more than a streak. I think he’s being set up as a love interest, and I’m not sure I want to root for that yet — though he shows signs of softening a bit as the book progresses.
The mystery is interesting, and it caused me to put my finger on something I love in books but have never quite articulated before — I love stories about old, cold cases. When I think about it, a lot of the mysteries I love have dealt with decades-old crimes that have to be pieced together from what little information still remains. Omens resolves one aspect of the alleged Larsen murders, but there’s so much still to learn.
There are a lot of other little touches in Omens that I loved: the gargoyles in Cainsville; the omens, which are a type of magic that isn’t trod over and over and over already; and the plethora of fascinating older female characters, which are often hard to find! (I even sympathized with Maggie, the waitress I think I was supposed to dislike; it’s obvious that there’s something supernatural behind her “incompetence” (like the milk spoiling) and I would love to see her again and find out what’s going on with her.)
CAINSVILLE is an original new series that offers an engaging blend of mystery and fantasy, and Omens is a good first book that has me quite hooked. I’ve already started the second book, Visions.