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Vendetta
by Gail Z Martin
Solaris, $7.99, 464pp
Published: December 2015

I enjoyed 'Deadly Curiosities' (click here for review )a great deal last year and, as it obviously began a series, wondered how further books would fare. 'Vendetta', the first sequel, does successfully avoid some of the obvious pitfalls that could have crept in but it leaps headlong into a few others. That leaves me with mixed feelings about the novel, which I enjoyed but rather less than its predecessor.

Those new to the series would be best starting out with the first book. Author Gail Z Martin does re-introduce characters and their respective talents here, so this is a viable entry point, but she does so in a clinical fashion that ignores much of the emotion of the first book; oddly, given the escalating emotion of this one.

The background is relatively simple and could be easily outlined through a set of montages in the opening credits of a TV show. I got the feeling that the first book was a pilot episode and this second book plays out like the always dangerous episode two that tries to grow a little without losing any of the viewers who dug the start.

Trifles and Folly is an antiques store located in the historic town of Charleston, SC, and it's home base for our leads. It's been around for three and a half centuries, though Sorren, its silent partner, predates the shop by a couple more, and, as we find out here, it's not the only such shop he has in his network. He isn't human, you see, and while there are real antiques being bought and sold at Trifles and Folly, that's hardly their raison d'être. What they really do is locate supernatural artifacts and either neutralise their power or secrete them away from society where they can and often do cause harm.

Cassidy Kincaide officially runs the store and she has the power of being able to see the crucial history of such objects through merely touching them. This is a useful talent, of course, but it can be a dangerous one and I appreciated how Martin encapsulated that danger within 'Deadly Curiosities.' Teag Logan, the store's assistant manager, has his own talents and there's a network of others in town who help out when needed.

And here, it's going to be needed. The many ghosts in Charleston are reacting to something or someone and Cassidy gets drawn into figuring out what. They seem rather rattled, an ironic state of affairs given that they're ghosts who are supposed to rattle the rest of us. The guides on ghost tours don't do well when their customers are pelted by stones that come out of nowhere. What's more, there's a whole series of odd disappearances in town of unrelated people walking down stairs but vanishing before they get to the bottom.

The ideas here are good ones and Martin's prose is as friendly as ever. While these books are urban fantasies, they read like cosy mysteries and this one's firmly in the latter camp until it gets a bit more focused on the meaning of the title. While the various supernatural events don't seem to be connected, Sorren is convinced that someone is gunning for him and the fact that he's right is hardly a spoiler given that it's telegraphed in the book's title and on the back cover.

What I liked most here were the details. Martin conjures up an interesting foe with interesting minions and she builds their vendetta steadily. She enlists a whole bunch of locations, each of which is worthy of playing its part. She brings back many supporting characters from the first book and adds a few more, each of them rife with potential. The supernatural world that constitutes the 'Deadly Curiosities' universe expands strongly. I'm on board with all of this.

What's less successful is what she does with those details. The sweeping vendetta becomes so all-encompassing that the details remain just details, instead of being fleshed out to satisfy our interest in them. The locations are merely cool backgrounds for more supernatural fight scenes. The characters are merely cool people colouring the backgrounds of supernatural fight scenes. While I wanted to know more about these people and places, the vendetta took precedent and we'll presumably have to wait until the next episode to see their depths explored.

Only that foe really gets any substance and then only late on, with the vision Cassidy explores after touching a ring Sorren wore a century and a half earlier while fighting the very same enemy. Not only does that vision fill us in on the tragic story that turned a good man bad, adding no end of depth to a villain we hadn't actually seen at that point; but it raises the future possibility of her learning more about Sorren, never the most willing character to volunteer information about his past, not to mention his present.

While Cassidy is our lead, this is really Sorren's book. We get the impression that much of what we learn about him here would not have been easy to bring to light without something as major as a wide-ranging and often successful vendetta waged against him by person or persons unknown. He's rocked, bloodied and made to feel weak, none of which are feelings a centuries-old vampire tends to feel. I appreciated this; but felt that, like the many supporting characters who help him out, he deserved more focus and the vendetta itself less.

And that vendetta goes on and on. I get that it had to keep on coming to batter Sorren into opening up, not to mention to get us through the preliminaries and on to the grand finale, but I found it easily the worst aspect of the book; unfortunate, given that it provides its very title.

Our leads always respond in the same way: they equip themselves with weapons and defences, put themselves in danger and come out worse for wear but successful. After all, they need to return for not only the next battle but the next book. If George R. R. Martin had written this, half the leads would be dead and we'd have an emotional connection to the rest that is bludgeoned out of us here by the same battles being fought over and over again, often against the same opponents with the same play-by-plays. Am I reading a fantasy novel or watching a football game?

I'd have liked to see most of those battles cut out of the book entirely, replaced by exposition and depth. One great example of many is how voodoo is treated. It's an interesting subject and a worthy one for inclusion here; but we don't know anything more about it when we finish the book than we did when we began.

The loas and the characters who invoke them are all played like Pokémon cards, thrown down when they're needed to do a job and promptly discarded. That's not good. I want to know why these practioners do the voodoo that they do, what it means to them, how it flavours their lives. I want to know how they call the loas and why the details matter. I want to know who these loas really are, not just their names but their backgrounds.

The same goes for many other angles, like the angle of Father Anne and the Christian take on the supernatural; the angle of Gerard Astor, mad artists and the selling of souls; and the angle of Nurse Judy and the Charleston witches. Given how so much here ties to ghosts, I wanted more of why they hang around and why the people who can help them pass on peacefully don't just do that en masse. How would that affect the local tour guide industry?

More than anything, I wanted to know more about the museums, not only the official ones but especially the Briggs Society, which is introduced here in an outrageous tease that isn't paid off in this book and hopefully will in future ones. Never mind Trifles and Folly, I'd read a series of novels about the Briggs Society!

So, I'd call this a missed opportunity. All the components that Gail Z Martin needs are here, but instead of growing her 'Deadly Curiosities' world, she distracted from it with what is surely the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. There's a great deal of cool stuff here, but the story won't remain with me at all. I'll happily check out book three, but it really needs to build the series and the characters that inhabit it rather than provide another missed opportunity. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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