Title: Bitter Night (Horngate Witches series, book 1)
Author: Diana Pharaoh Francis
I've seen Diana Pharoah Francis at several sf&f conventions in recent years, and found her a good speaker on panels about the craft and business of writing. While listening to her speak about urban fantasy a few days ago, I decided it was time I read one of her books. During the panel, I logged on to Amazon and downloaded the Kindle edition of Bitter Night.
Although Bitter Night doesn't fit the description of urban fantasy given by one of the other panelists because it lacks a detective element, I would classify it as fitting in the urban fantasy genre. It's set in the present day, but features magic and magical creatures. Francis has designed an interesting magic system for her world. In her setting, powerful witches form covens with less powerful witches and claim territories. Each witch has a cadre of magic-enhanced bodyguards. These bodyguards are divided into two groups: Shadowblades, who are vulnerable to sunlight and can only work at night; and Sunspears, who are vulnerable to darkness and can only serve during the day. Each unit of Shadowblades and Sunspears has one person designated the Prime, who commands the rest of the unit. All of the Shadowblades and Sunspears are magically bonded to their witch by compulsion spells, but they must willingly accept the bond.
The main protagonist of Bitter Night is Max, Shadowblade Prime to a witch named Giselle whose territory is centered in Montana. But unlike most Shadowblades and Sunspears, Max hates her witch and constantly thinks about killing Giselle. It's revealed early in the story that Max believes Giselle tricked her into accepting their magical bond, and consequently she thinks of herself as enslaved to Giselle rather than as the witch's willing servant. It quickly became obvious to me that Max's conviction was completely wrong and her obsession with getting revenge on Giselle was foolish. But of course the character doesn't have the benefit of the reader's perspective.
Max is an unusually powerful and tough Shadowblade, her fierceness and strength fueled by her resentment toward Giselle. Other characters seem able to sense this power in her and are attracted to it. I'm beginning to wonder if Max has some magical talent of her own that will be explored in later books. She's also unwilling to recognize just how devoted her Shadowblades are to her, or how much she means to Giselle. In this she reminds me somewhat of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy hero Harry Dresden, who never realizes just how powerful and frightening he is to other people.
Francis provides a lot of conflict and danger for Max to face. Max's world is about to experience a magical apocalypse. The Guardians, god-like beings to whom the witches owe fealty, have decided that humans have depleted too much of the world's magic and it's time to clean house. Max goes through the tortures of the damned - literally - to protect Horngate and Giselle not only from a rival witch but from the Guardians themselves. There's a lot of exciting cinematic action in the story. Max is like an action movie hero, endlessly suffering injuries that would cripple or kill an ordinary person. At least she has her magical enhancements to explain her ability to withstand horrific wounds and keep fighting.
While overall I enjoyed the novel and read it quickly - always a good sign - there were some elements I found a little disappointing. Max encounters another Shadowblade Prime, Alexander, who instantly finds her attractive. When given the opportunity to leave the witch to whom he's bonded and follow Max, he hardly hesitates. Of course he's an extremely attractive man, which smacked a little too much of a romance novel for my taste. The Guardians also have servants referred to as angels, which when described sound an awful lot like anime characters. The two angels who appear in Bitter Night are both defined as masculine and physically muscular, and they wear the sort of clothes I would expect to see such characters wearing in an anime series. It would have been nice if the angels had seemed less human. But I suppose to a certain extent Francis is playing to an audience that enjoys supernatural romance, so the men have to be attractive even if they aren't human.
Despite the drawbacks I've described, I found Bitter Night an enjoyable read and am looking forward to reading the next novel in the series.