Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2) by Cherie Priest
There’s always something appealing about a freewheeling approach to fiction. It starts off with impetus, bowling along once it has established momentum and, unless something with powerful stopping power gets in its way, it just keeps on a-running. So it was with Bloodshot, the first in The Cheshire Red Reports. Now here comes Hellbent by Cherie Priest. This time we find ourselves in the calm before the storm as Raylene Pendle settles into new premises, and watches with relief and approval as Ian assumes an interest in the waifs who no longer stray quite as much. It’s distracting him from the events of the first novel and providing some stability in the lives of the “kids”.
With the picture of domesticity established, Raylene picks up a job which her instinct tells her is not going to be as easy as her handler would have her believe. And so it is as we watch her walk into her first encounter with what will prove to be a magician of considerable ability. During her escape from indirect attack, she has the chance to acquire another orphan, this time of the feline variety. It seems she’s obsessed with the idea of leaving no-one (human or animal) behind on the battlefield. Now we get into a three-pronged narrative in which she continues to search for the missing box of bacula (the plural of baculum for those who want to look it up), a “murder mystery”, and helping our kick-ass drag queen in the continuing search for his missing sister.
All this involves us flitting from one city to another as we slowly work our way down the shopping list. In the end, we have some of the bacula, an identity for the killer, a sister, another stray, and a probable future collaborator. Several jobs well done, you may say, and indeed it proves so. Hellbent has a slightly more laid-back approach. Bloodshot was more on the serious side with many of the developments coming so thick and fast we arrived at the end feeling somewhat breathless. This is slightly more formulaic because, with only two of the characters on display and better known, we can focus on their situation rather than trying to work them out as people. That said, I do have vague unhappiness. The bacula sequence feels like a bolt-on to establish elements for the third in the series and I’m never happy when an element like the sister has to depend so obviously on coincidence for resolution. For me, it would have been better to focus on the supposed murder and find the sister in a more proactive way. As it stands, this strikes me as lazy plotting to hit a word count. Having had fun with the bacula, that element just stops in its tracks and the sister becomes a dea ex machina to facilitate the escape from Atlanta. This latter feels like a Lionel Fanthorpe ending. He used to write books to a word count and a deadline. When caught short, he would finish with the desperation of a juggler about to drop all the balls. Hellbent is more leisurely that most of the Fanthorpes, but it still feels contrived.
I know we reviewers are supposed to take the book as we find it and not as we would like it to be, yet there’s an additional circumstance to take into account. Curiously, this was only a two-book deal. Publishers have been getting a wee bit more cautious as Amazon flexes its muscles and tries to convince the world it’s in a dominant position. With Borders going belly up and the other brick-and-mortar booksellers struggling in difficult market conditions, we’ll have to wait and see whether Ballantine Spectra shells out for another two (or more) in this series. In this situation, I think Cherie Priest should have left things poised with the arrival of the sister. This would have allowed us a much better development of a rather better mystery element and the political situation between the vampire houses could have been explored in more detail. We could then have had the bacula in volume three should more dollars be forthcoming. Nothing need be wasted. This would have allowed us more time to understand cause and effect, particularly on the question of the earthquake as it affects current and past realities.
So, overall, Hellbent is an entertaining read which develops our understanding of this version of reality. That I think it could have been better is, in a way, a tribute to Cherie Priest. If I had been indifferent, I would simply have put the book back on the shelf and begun the next. But I was sufficiently interested to take the time to analyse the source of my dissatisfaction. For me, she remains an author to watch and my advice to Ballantine is that it should pick up the contract for more in this series.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still