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22 February 2008 @ 05:16 am
The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson  
Series: Sign of the Zodiac
Publisher: Eos, 2007
Genre: Horror
Sub-genre: Urban fantasy
Rating: 5 pints of blood



If this book was a young, unmarried man, he'd be the type to dress head-to-toe in leather to meet your parents but would wind up charming them anyway. Thoroughly unpredictable, and perhaps not the type of guy you'd end up marrying, but you'd stick with him as long as humanly possible, because all that mad passion and unpredictability is impossible to resist.

Is my enthusiasm showing yet?

I'm not overly keen on the cover, really. I think a lot of that has to do with the layout; it seems very busy. the cover image has a dark young woman who looks ready to smack someone in the head with her crossbow just to hear the sound a nose makes when it's crunched in, a clawed and horned demon presumably laughing at some inside joke, and a brightly lit cityscape. All of this is shoved into a space smaller than half of the front cover, to make room for all the text, most of it quotes. There's a lot to see here, and I feel like I can't see it properly since it's all squeezed onto the front cover. What do I look at first? There's so much going on, my eyes tend to skip right over the author name and title as irrelevant, which... can't be good for sales, really. And that's too bad, because while this book probably wouldn't marry me, I'm not above secretly hoping it'll agree one day to give up its unconventional attitude and walk down the aisle.

This book was so wonderful, I absolutely devoured it. I cracked it open less than two days ago, and now I'm writing a review. It's a deliciously dark, swirling world with characters who are easy to believe in and so many plot twists I found it impossible to predict what was coming next. In reading, I was absolutely certain I knew who the "double agent" was, and I was delighted to find out I was wrong. I wasn't reading about blind characters who couldn't see the obvious clues in front of their faces, which was unbelievably refreshing. When I picked up this book, I wanted something to erase the horrors of The Family Trade from my mind, and The Scent of Shadows accomplished that nicely. It was so absorbing, I couldn't remember my own name, let alone details from the last book I read.

My one issue in writing this review is that there are so many plot twists, and they start so early, I'm having a hard time writing a decent recap without spoiling things for people who want to read the book. I'll do what I can, because everyone should have the wonderful, head-spinning moments this book provides. (You have to get your own copy though, because I'm keeping mine close to me, my preciousssss.)

At fifteen years old, Joanna Archer was assaulted, raped, and left to die in the middle of the desert. She survived, but just barely, her entire life now a shell self-designed to protect her from any future damage. Ten years later, she finds herself on a blind date with a gaunt man with whom she has nothing in common. To her horror, he somehow shows her an inhuman darkness about him and announces calmly he plans to kill her before the night is out. Ten years worth of self defense lessons come in handy, and Joanna manages to dispatch her date, only to find one of the cops on the scene is the ex-boyfriend she never quite got over. There's still electricity humming between them, so she agrees to go out with him the next night.

On her way home, Joanna runs over a homeless man, but before she can even call for an ambulance, his broken limbs start visibly healing, and he starts babbling insane ravings at her, things about superheroes and dire warnings that there will be more attempts on her life in the next twenty-four hours. As much as Joanna wants to dismiss the encounter, she's shaken, especially by the warnings, considering someone has already tried to kill her.

The next evening, after a wildly successful date, Joanna goes to her sister Olivia's house to share all the details, as she'd promised. While there, one of Olivia's ex-boyfriends stops by to pick up his things, and pulls out his weapons as soon as he sees Joanna. Unprepared and unarmed, this battle is more difficult than her blind date, and Joanna only survives when the homeless man who had raved at her mysteriously shows up to the battle.

Joanna leaves with the homeless man, who introduces himself as Warren, and explains that there's a full paranormal world mixed in among the normal humans, with extraordinary abilities, like superheroes and supervillains. Warren is one of the good guys, and the two who have attacked Joanna are villains. Joanna herself is in the process of her metamorphosis, gaining her own special abilities, including the rapid healing Warren had demonstrated after being hit with her car. Not only is Joanna one of the paranormals, her heritage is very special, and her coming has been foretold; she is the Kairos, a warrior made of both Light and Shadow, who can tip the scales in the ongoing war between the two sides. The catch is that she has to leave her entire life behind, including her newly rediscovered love and her sister.

The paranormal underworld Pettersson has set up is a wonderfully original place, it's well thought-out and I love the way the zodiac is integrated. Her characters are thoroughly believable and in spite of their special powers, they're entirely human. Their motivations are recognizable, and even the Light characters aren't paragons of goodness. I found myself really liking Joanna, who was in fact as smart and strong as a "superhero" should be.

As always, what separates a good book from a great book are the details, and all the little things in The Scent of Shadows had me flipping pages obsessively. My favourite touch was perhaps that the histories of the Zodiac troop are kept in comic book form, available at the nearest geek shop. There's a set for the Light and the Shadow, and they all have their own collectible card. Joanna remains conscious of this, even picking her battle outfit as something she'd like to see representing her between the pages.

As per most dark fantasy/horror stories, the fight scenes are sprinkled liberally, and they are fairly brutal. Anyone squeamish about reading a scene wherein a man's head is removed from his body without the help of weapons should be wary in picking this book up. Anyone who doesn't find themselves deterred by a gritty battle should run as fast as they can to the bookstore.

Why are you still reading? You should be running! To the bookstore with you!