This paranormal urban fantasy is Ms Wells’ long-awaited debut novel, and the first in a trilogy following one Sabina Kane, a half-vampire/half-mage assassin. Like most urban fantasies, Red-Headed Stepchild is narrated by the protagonist. As has been said by several reviewers about other books, this technique makes it more of a hit or miss with readers; if you cannot stand the heroine-cum-narrator’s voice, odds are you are not going to enjoy the story, no matter how novel its take on a particular theme or mythos, or how well written it may be.
Here is the back cover blurb:
Sabina Kane’s life is… complicated.
In a world where being of mixed blood is a major liability, Sabina has the only profession fit for an outcast: assassin. But her latest mission threatens the fragile peace between the vampire and the mage races, and Sabina must scramble to figure out which side she’s on. She’s never brought her work home with her-until now.
This time, it’s personal.
Note: I like this cover quite a bit, but what I like the most is this little snippet from the back cover:
In Ms Jaye’s universe, at least two groups of paranormal beings are descended from Lilith of the apocryphal Judeo-Christian tradition, the vampires and the mages (aka witches). Problem is, each of these species claims to be Lilith’s true descendants, and would like little more than to eliminate the other one from Earth. However, due to a past event, all of the paranormal beings coexist in a sort of armed truce, hidden from (and often coexisting peacefully enough with) humans.
The vampires are immortal unless exposed to sun or apple wood (from the ‘forbidden fruit’ of Judeo-Christian tradition) and are ruled with an iron fist by the Dominae, a triumvirate of female vampires, of which Lavinia-Sabina’s grandmother-is the eldest and the de facto leader.
Magekind can live for more than a thousand years, thanks to their magic, and follow the Hekate, who have one supreme leader. Other than that, the reader learns very little about them or, indeed, any of the other paranormal species, because we only know what Sabina knows and, alas, she knows next to nothing about anything but vampires.
And this brings us to one of my issues with Sabina. We are told that she has lived for a few decades (older than me yay! *ahem*) yet her behaviour and her reactions towards the different people in her world strike me as decidedly young-as in, teenage young.
I mean, I understand fanatic loyalty clouding one’s judgement, and I understand her not wanting to look too closely at her own motivations (her craving for her grandmother’s approval, for example, seems rather childish to me).
But her nigh absolute ignorance of all other species of paranormal beings seemed forced. How she could have lived over fifty years without coming in contact, even superficially, with mages, demons or faeries is beyond me. Heck, even her reactions to other vampires often seemed awkward.
Perhaps the aim was to convey how Sabina’s dedication to her profession and to gaining her grandmother’s approval had resulted in a sort of voluntary isolation from vampires as well as all other creatures, to show that she was determined to succeed as an assassin and that she had learned long ago that keeping her distance is key. If that is the case, though, then her quick affection towards several of the secondary characters (two of whom are introduced a good third into the novel) is totally out of character.
Another issue I had was that I didn’t feel the novel took a fresh approach to urban fantasy. We have the same old, same old of countless other novels in the genre. We have vampires, mages, demons, faeries, all hiding in plain sight, and all engaged in a struggle for supreme power. There are secrets, betrayals, prophecies, dysfunctional families, magic and psychic powers.
The last third of the novel seems to gain speed, with several things happening at the same time, culminating with a dramatic confrontation between a number of factions. Unfortunately, I found that too many questions remain unanswered and, worse, are not addressed by Sabina, by the end of the book.
Now, there were things I enjoyed-Giguhl being the most novel familiar I’ve read in a while-and the story grabbed my attention enough that I finished in two sittings, but in the end there was more that bothered me than I liked. However, I will likely read the next book, to see whether some of my questions are answered.
Red-Headed Stepchild gets 6 out of 10 from me.
- Bitten by Books, 5 out of 5 Tombstones
- Fantasy Book Critic, “Red-Headed Stepchild is a book that I expect will do quite well…”
- Love Vampires, 4.5 out of 5 stars
- Fantasy Debut, “(Red-Headed Stepchild) provided a light read and an interesting take on the vampire mythos.”
- Darque Reviews, “(Red-Headed Stepchild) should be at the top of every urban fantasy reader’s wish list.”
- Reading with Monie, 5 out of 5 stars