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Grave Matters
by Lauren M Roy
Ace. $7.99, 304pp
Published: February 2015

I have to begin by pointing out that I only made it a hundred pages into 'Grave Matters', the second book in the 'Night Owls' series, before giving up. I hadn't read its predecessor, named for the series, and the second book didn't do well at easing me into its world. I was confused as to who I should have cared about and who I shouldn't, who was important and who wasn't and why the obvious ties between characters were meaningful. While Lauren M Roy did cover some of what happened before this story began, it didn't gel together in a coherent form for me. I wasn't sure what I was reading and why.

However, I should also point out that I didn't just give up on the book. Because I was intrigued by the world Roy conjures up and the characters she populates it with, I wandered over to Amazon and bought 'Night Owls' (click here for review), read that and then returned to 'Grave Matters' with a whole new insight. Now many things made sense and I realised that I'd reached a host of inappropriate conclusions first time around.

What I discovered through this odd floundering about is that this pair of books really aren't what they seem to be.

For a start, they're really not two books; they're two halves of one book, albeit with their own fleshed out story arcs and boss battles. What's more, they're really not the first two episodes in a series, to use a TV show analogy; they're the two-part pilot.

And, most notably, neither we nor the characters in the story know either of these things until the final pages of 'Grave Matters'. That's why the focus has felt so consistently and frustratingly insubstantial. Lauren Roy isn't really telling us a story here, let alone two. She's introducing us to an ensemble cast of characters and, through what appear to be stories, lets them loose to find the real one.

This is precisely why the series doesn't appear to be what it says it is. It's called 'Night Owls', after the bookstore in Edgewood, MA, that sits on a college campus, remains open all night and is owned by a vampire. It's a great location but we don't go there often in the first book and we almost forget about it entirely in the second one. However, I now feel that it really will be the focal point of the series.

It's also precisely why there isn't a lead character. The books always felt like they should have been about Val, the vampire who runs Night Owls, but she doesn't do anything in the way that vampires are supposed to and she seems intent throughout to avoid the spotlight as much as the sun. Yet, I now feel that the revelations that both books were leading up to mean that she can't remain an isolationist rogue for long. Circumstances require that she now becomes what she perhaps should have been but avoided being all along, to live up to her potential as it were, and hey, just like that, we have ourselves a grounded series.

With Val so reluctant to take the lead, I wondered after the first book if it was really about Elly, an emotionally damaged but very talented young lady who sparks the action in 'Night Owls' by bringing a dangerous book into town and remains at the centre of it in 'Grave Matters' as hired muscle for the leading cabal of Boston vampires. Her 'brother', Cavale, was also prominent in the first book and is more so here in the second as the local warlock, a key player in the fight to track down and remove the new mysterious necromancer in town.

Of course, even if Val is about to firmly become the central character in the series, they're still major players too, as indeed are a bunch of others who are integral parts of what we surely have to call the 'Night Owls' family, because there's no other logical name to choose. Most live in Edgewood, but Elly and Cavale are technically in Crow's Neck. The 'Edgewood/Crow's Neck conurbation stories' just doesn't have a ring to it. What draws them together isn't really the bookstore, at least not yet, but they are becoming a coherent team, one that can stand up and be counted.

That's because each of them has their own story arc running through the first two books which ends with them aware of who they are and what their part in the big picture has become. There will, no doubt, be more growth to come, but they've all found that they're not alone, that they're part of something bigger than themselves and that their names deserve to be in the opening credits sequence.

Chaz was perhaps the most obvious in the first book, behind the main three characters, but his position as Renfield to Val isn't a particularly notable one. However, he finds his purpose by the end of the second book and hopefully his often annoyingly contrary attitude will now settle down a little to reasonable levels.

Justin is the other member of 'the team' who works at Night Owls. Merely a grad student at the beginning of the story, he progresses to being a lot more by the end of this book and he perhaps has more potential than anyone else to be a key player as the books add up.

The other character with a similar level of potential is Marian, Elly's mother, who gave her up to the Brotherhood to learn to fight the Jackals, as a mere child. As 'Night Owls' began, she was absent, presumed lost, and had never seen her daughter since. However, she plays an important, if small, part in both books so far and can only grow in importance as they proliferate.

That leaves Sunny and Lia, the lesbian succubi couple, who, like other characters, were in many ways runaways from who they really were. They still don't have the prominence I'd like but the necromancer causing trouble in Edgewood stirs up inadvertent ties to their past, so we get a lot more of their story in this book with potential for more in the future.

And so the team assembles, but it's very much across a couple of books and they really shouldn't be separated. Lauren Roy engaged me more than I expected in this world, performing a magic act of sorts by firmly grabbing my attention, going on to distract me in many ways from what was really important, before finally letting me in on the secret at the very end of the performance. She doesn't go in for a lot of descriptions in the physical sense, so I don't know what these people look like for the most part, but I do now have strong impressions of who they are and what makes them tick, far more than most characters in most books I read.

I'm engaged in this story and would highly recommend this series, but I have to be very careful in how I do so. I want to emphasise that this is firmly a two-part pilot episode to the forthcoming series, so if you're interested, I recommend that you buy both books and read them together, in order. If you deviate from that, you're not going to see the picture in the way it needs to be seen. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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