Deadline by Jennifer Blackstream (2016)
Deadline is the first book in Jennifer Blackstream’s Blood Trails urban fantasy series. If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, then you will have noticed I’ve read a lot of first books in a series lately, and we’re only a few weeks into the year. I tend to think of the first book in a series the same way I think of the pilot episode of a new television show. If the description sparks my curiosity and interest, then I’m willing to sample the first installment. While some critics will tell you we’re experiencing “peak TV”, I would further suggest we’re experiencing “peak publishing”. Which means there are so many more books to sample than I really have time for. The consequence (and maybe it’s a negative consequence) is that the first installment of any series has to grab hold of me and refuse to let me go. What I find is that the more first books I sample, the higher my expectations become, and the harder it is for the book to exceed my expectations. The truth is that my reading time and my book budget dollars are both precious and a finite resource. Which means I’m likely to keep reading a lot of first books in the series, and I’ll try to write something worthwhile and informative about my impressions so that you can decide whether you want to invest your time and money. That being said, let’s dive into the world of Deadline.
The protagonist of Deadline is Shade Renard, and the story is told solely through her first-person point-of-view. For the last three years, Shade has been living in the town of Dresden, Ohio and serving the locals as the resident village witch. Early in the story we learn what Shade wants most—to work as a private investigator in addition to her regular witch duties. At the end of the story, it is still a mystery as to what exactly motivates her to follow this path, but what we do know is that it has much to do with her search for redemption for the sins of her past. We also learn that Shade has spent many years as a student and apprentice to Mother Hazel, AKA Baba Yaga. Mother Hazel is not at all on board with Shade’s desire to be a P.I., but she doesn’t directly stand in her way, either. Shade possesses a strong sense of right and wrong, but at the same time, she’s no idealist. Rather, she’s a realist and by the end of the novel, this worldview will put her into direct opposition and conflict with one of the supporting characters (more on that in a moment). While she isn’t an expert at all things magical, she’s also not a complete novice nor is she one of those protagonists you frequently meet in an urban fantasy novel who is being introduced to a whole new world she never knew existed. Shade has an impressive amount of power, but it appears that part of her journey will be to learn how to navigate the power politics of the Otherworld while trying to find answers (and justice) for her clients. What makes Shade a compelling character you want to follow through the story? In equal measure she is vulnerable, determined, and doesn’t let the fact that she’s in over her head stop her from seeing her first case to the end. I liked Shade, and I like that at the end of the novel, I don’t know every single thing about her. There’s still a lot to learn about her as a character and there is a lot of room for her character to develop and evolve.
It’s a good thing Shade is a likeable character, because she has to carry much of the weight of the story, and this leads me to one of the trouble spots for Deadline. There isn’t much of an identifiable supporting cast of characters. The supporting character who gets the most time on the page is Peasblossom, a pixie and Shade’s familiar. Honestly, I loved Peasblossom and would like to see her character get more time on the page. She loves honey the same way I love coffee, and is definitely a bright spot in the novel. The above-mentioned Mother Hazel is obviously intended to be the mentor figure for Shade. My guess is that Anton Winters, AKA Prince Kirilla of Dacia, will also become a part of the supporting cast, as will his wife, Vera and their heard but not seen son, Dimitri (I’m especially curious about Dimitri and would love to see him pop up again in future books in this series). Anton is essentially the creator of the world in which Deadline is set, and as such the center of great power. Even though he is technically Shade’s second client, he exists mostly on the fringes of the story. One of the questions that repeatedly comes up is why he hired Shade to find an item that’s been stolen from him. At the conclusion of the story we still don’t have the exact answer to that question, but there is more than a hint that Anton has a particular interest in Shade, which for now remains a secret. The character who seems to be an antagonist for Shade (at least for now) is a sorceress named, Arianne Monet, whose specialty is dream magic. In Deadline, Shade makes a dangerous enemy of Arianne, and it will remain to be seen as to whether or not they remain enemies or move closer to being friends. Because, well, close friends are noticeably absent in the supporting cast, and that’s one of the weak points of the novel. There’s really no sidekick or BFF type character.
Some writers subscribe to the idea that a great story needs five specific character types: the protagonist, the antagonist, the mentor, the sidekick/BFF, and a love interest.* For the most part, I tend to agree with this way of thinking in terms of character and story structure. Which leads me to the question of whether or not Deadline offers a love interest for Shade. I would say the answer to this question is…maybe. The likeliest character to fill this role in future books is FBI Agent Andrew (Andy) Bradford. Andy is the character in the story who is just now becoming aware of a world he didn’t know existed. I don’t want to spoil what happens with this character, but there is something about him that made me think about him as a character and myself as a reader. Andy is an idealist. For him, everything is right or wrong, good or evil, and people are either law-abiding citizens or criminals. Also, his expectation is that all individuals—whether human or Otherworlders—are subject to human standards and human laws. He is not willing to compromise on his ideals, and who can fault him for that? At the end of the novel, he and Shade have a long conversation, and it made me question whether I’m just a jaded reader (and a jaded person?) that my reaction to Andy was negative. For me, he’s too self-righteous. His idealism is commendable, and yet, we do not live in a perfect, equitable world, and justice really isn’t blind. Failing to acknowledge these truths inevitably leads to a failure to bring about lasting, meaningful change. In a word, Andy makes me uncomfortable, but then, maybe that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do. His idealism is a foil and counterpoint to Shade’s realism. He rubbed me the wrong way, and the result is that I find it problematic to consider that he is being set up as a potential love interest for Shade.
I try to keep my reviews in the neighborhood of 1000 words, and this review has ballooned well over that self-imposed guideline. I find that the books that cause me to write more than 1000 words are the books that were in some way provocative for me, making me think about my own worldview or the craft of writing. I know what you’re wondering. Did she like the book? Yes, I liked Deadline. Much like First Grave on the Right, I liked it, but I didn’t love it and I’m skeptical about whether or not I will pick up the second book in the series. I recommend it to readers who enjoy urban fantasy and like a female protagonist as the main character. It’s smart and well-written, and the mystery is layered and complex without being unnecessarily complicated. There are even a couple of nods to Harry Dresden. Blood Trails is a series that has potential and I don’t think you would be disappointed if you give it a try.
On a budget? At the time of this writing, Deadline is not in the Kindle Unlimited library and it’s also not available from my local library (in either paperback or e-book format). In my opinion, this book was worth the $0.99 price tag I paid for it (and I’d argue it is worth more than that, but the trend seems to be a low price for the first book in a series to convince you to take a chance, particularly if the writer is one you’ve never read before).
Have you read Deadline or any of the other novels in the Blood Trails series? What did you think? Should I keep reading?
*K.M. Weiland has written about these five character types being vital to any novel on her website, Helping Writers Become Authors.