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Kelley Armstrong

REVIEW:  Omens by Kelley Armstrong

REVIEW: Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I’ve been a fan of your work since the very beginning. Some books work better for me than others, but that’s to be expected from an author with a sizeable backlist. When your Otherworld series ended last year, I wondered what you’d do next. I knew you’d be writing another Nadia Stafford book but was that it for the adult realm? Then one day I opened up my mailbox to find that Jane had sent me an ARC of your latest book, Omens.

omens-armstrongOlivia Taylor-Jones is a privileged rich girl. There is no dancing around this fact. She comes from a filthy, stinking rich Chicago family, has an Ivy League education, and is engaged to a young CEO who’s being groomed for political office.

Then everything comes crashing down around her when tabloid journalists and bloggers break the news that she’s adopted. What’s more, her birth parents were infamous serial killers who murdered 8 people. The scandal and ensuing attention proves to be too much, leading her adoptive mother to flee to Europe (how nice of her) and driving Olivia out of Chicago.

Where she goes, though, is the small, insular town of Cainesville. There she hopes to learn more about her parents’ pasts, in the hopes of making peace with the newly uncovered truth. But her investigation only leads to more secrets, including mysterious abilities that seem to have awakened and grow stronger by the day.

I hesitate to call this an urban fantasy. It takes place in a small town where everyone knows each other (and their business) and where you can’t get a job until the locals get to know you. Small town gothic would be more accurate perhaps. As with all your previous books, Omens has a writing style that’s easy to read. It’s never a struggle and that’s so comforting to me.

Despite the fact that Olivia is so ridiculously privileged, complete with her “Oh, let me help the poor!” deal in the beginning that allows her to counsel them but never exposes her to the reality of their lives, I found myself sympathizing with her. It’s helped by the fact that even after she learned of her adoption, she continued to think of her adoptive parents as her real parents while the serial killers were just those people who gave birth to her. In so many stories, upon learning they were adopted, the protagonist drops everything to find their “real” parents, as if all the years spent with their adoptive parents amounted to nothing.

That said, I also liked that it didn’t gloss over the complications of having memories of your birth parents. Olivia as a little girl adored her birth parents and the news that she was adopted causes all those old memories to resurface. She may not call them her parents, but she loved them as a little girl and those feelings don’t entirely go away.

On the surface, I suppose you could say this is a narrative about a rich girl who gets knocked off her pedestal and is exposed to the real world. I don’t think that’s what this story is doing, however. Not entirely. For one, Olivia’s privilege is called out many times over the course of the novel. There’s nothing stopping her from asking for money from her family other than pride, after all. Nor is there ever a sense that she can really up and leave her new “poor” life and return to her old one. I mean, of course she can leave Cainesville and return to her Chicago mansion. There’s nothing stopping her from that either. But her entire world as changed, based on the perceptions of the people around her, and a person can never go back from that.

The fantasy aspects in Omens are subtle. There are no werewolves or witches here. Olivia’s ability relates to seeing and interpreting omens, actual omens. Omens related to luck, omens related to the weather, and omens related to death. The mysteries of Cainesville are never explained in this book but readers who know their European folklore (or are willing to google a few words) will get a big hint. I found myself preferring the subtle approach here because the branch of the supernatural world this deals with has never been my favorite, I admit.

Despite all this, however, I found myself finishing the novel and coming to an abrupt realization: nothing really happens in this book. Olivia meets her birth mother, thanks to the efforts of the lawyer who used to represent her birth parents. Her birth mother insists upon their innocence and sends Olivia to investigate the circumstances of the last couple they allegedly murdered. The investigation leads to secret conspiracies and then… And then…

And then?

That’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? There is no “and then.” The circumstances of the final couple’s murder are revealed and that plot line is resolved, but we don’t learn anything else. Not the mystery of Cainesville. Not the meaning of Olivia’s abilities. Not the depths of the secret conspiracy she may have uncovered. We don’t even learn if her birth parents are actually innocent. Omens is very much a set-up book, and I wish that wasn’t the case. The earlier novels of the Otherworld series were self-contained and standalone, despite being part of a series, and I miss that format. I really wish Omens didn’t show signs of following the pattern set by later novels in your previous series instead.

For readers looking for romance, there isn’t much of one here. There’s an implication of something brewing between Olivia and Gabriel, the lawyer helping her, but the relationship is more similar to the relationship between Nadia and Jack from the assassin books. There’s something there but chances are it’ll be slow to form, and there’s a high probability Olivia will take a detour along the way.

I enjoyed Omens for its intriguing premise and compelling character conflict. What I’m cautious about is the execution and payoff, since recent novels from you fell short for me in this area. I’m willing to stick along for the ride but I’m definitely keeping my expectations in check. C+

My regards,

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REVIEW:  Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong

REVIEW: Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

All things must come to an end. That includes your Women of the Otherworld series. I can’t believe it’s been over ten years since we were first introduced to Elena, the only female werewolf in existence. And while I’ve liked some books more than others, I still consider this series to be one of my comfort reads. It’s rare for me to find an author who fulfills that role for me so when I do, I tend to hold on with both hands through thick and thin.

13Not only does Thirteen wrap up the Otherworld series, it also concludes the three-book concluding arc featuring Savannah Levine. Introduced in the earliest books of the series, Savannah has grown up before us loyal readers. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve gotten the strong impression that I’m in the minority that likes Savannah as a character and protagonist.

I suppose I just understand the reason behind her personality, being the daughter of the infamous witch, Eve, and the Cabal sorcerer and leader, Kristoff Nash. Yes, she’s cocky and overconfident but it was only recently that she had any reason not to be. Before Savannah was de-powered at the end of Waking of Witch, she had serious firepower and has had it since she was very young. Growing up like that, in addition to bearing the weight of her infamous parents, I don’t find it surprising to see her turn out the way she did. So in a way, I consider these three final books as a way to bring about Savannah’s growth and force her into maturity regarding her powers.

With the previous books, Waking the Witch and Spellbound, my main complaint had been that they were noticeably set-up books. Sure, plot happened but as a reader, I was well-aware this wasn’t the final battle and that everything happening was only preparing for the endgame to come. Thirteen doesn’t disappoint on that score.

In fact, so much plot and story happened in Thirteen that I felt a little resentful that similar awesome shenanigans couldn’t have been included in the prior two Savannah books. Being the culmination of a long-running series where everything finally comes together, I’m deliberately vague so as to not spoil – because everything I could say about the plot is literally a spoiler. Suffice it to say, we see cameos from everyone, all the Otherworld heroines we’ve met over the years: Elena, Paige, Jaime, Eve, and Hope. Some readers may find this gimmicky or unsatisfying, especially if they dislike Savannah. I saw it as a way of saying goodbye to these women, and I liked that.

The main conflict in Thirteen is huge and a potentially reality-changing catastrophe. Laws of nature and magic are being broken and that’s never good. You know it’s serious business when both demons and angels are getting involved and trying to pull strings from the other side.

In terms of Savannah’s character arc, I liked the storyline involving Eve. Savannah never really got that relationship, so it was nice to see it finally happen even if it was only for a short time. On the other hand, I found the constant kidnapping to be irritating. Yes, they poke fun at it in-text but come on. And while I like the idea of Savannah being de-powered to cure her overdependence on magic and spellwork, I really did not care for the resolution of that plotline and how handwavy it. It was kind of a letdown.

Another staple of the Otherworld universe is Savannah’s crush on Adam Vasic, a half-demon and firestarter. Through the years, that crush has turned to love but because they became best friends along the way, Savannah didn’t want to jeopardize that and was willing to let that go. But the events of the past two books made it obvious that Adam reciprocated her feelings and in Thirteen, that relationship finally reaches fruition. I’m normally a huge fan of the friends to lovers trope but I was underwhelmed here.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse out why. No matter how many years pass, I still find it cute when a young character grows up and finally catches her crush. And while there is an age difference, it definitely did not bother me here because in my head, I still see Adam as some slacker college kid even though he hasn’t been that in a long time. In the end, I think my feelings stem from the fact that while it was a fairly realistic portrayal of the dancing around friends do right before they become lovers, it was also a pretty undramatic rendition of it. Some readers like that but there’s a part of me that loves the dramatic, especially when it comes to storylines involving emotions and the heart, and this sadly did not do it for me.

And finally, I received a physical copy of this book from Penguin so I was able to read the extra story about Elena and the North American pack, “From Russia With Love.” In all honesty, I’m glad I did get this version because the book makes what I consider to be an odd choice by including the prologue to Bitten at the front of the novel. I, myself, was not a fan of that choice because as far as I’m concerned it didn’t add anything to the narrative’s presentation, but it does serve as a good counterpoint to “From Russia With Love” as the end. Looking back at it, I see them serving as bookends. As with many of the short stories set in the Otherworld universe, I wouldn’t call “From Russia With Love” a must-read but it does bring the North American pack into the future, so to speak. If you read the story, you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Overall, despite some issues, I found Thirteen to be a satisfying conclusion to the Otherworld universe. (On the adult side anyway. I know there are YA novels set in this world.) It was also nice to see the past heroines of the Otherworld universe. None of them are in the same places as they were in their respective novels, and I like seeing that progression of time and evolution of character. A part of me will miss this world as a reader, but nothing lasts forever. And while it is an ending, I don’t consider this the ending. As with all things, life goes on and Thirteen leaves us with the impression that the same holds true for the Otherworld characters even if we, the readers, will no longer be witness to them. And I think that is a perfect ending. B

My regards,