Title: The Scent of Shadows (Sign of the Zodiac, Book 1)
Author: Vicki Pettersson
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Stand alone or series: First novel in the Sign of the Zodiac series (currently 2 books)
Summary: (From amazon.com)
When she was sixteen, Joanna Archer was brutally assaulted and left to die in the Nevada desert.
By rights, she should be dead.
Now a photographer by day, she prowls a different Las Vegas after sunset—a grim, secret Sin City where Light battles Shadow—seeking answers to whom or what she really is . . . and revenge for the horrors she was forced to endure.
But the nightmare is just beginning—for the demons are hunting Joanna, and the powerful shadows want her for their own . . .
Why did I read the book: Most reviews for the series were quite favorable, and the negative reviews cited Ms. Pettersson’s lack of happy ever afters and violence as the reason for their dissatisfaction—naturally, drawing me in like a moth to a flame! After reading Li’s review over at Me and My Books, she noted that Ms. Pettersson’s book was very much like the birth of a superhero and heavy on the comic allusions—which put me over the tipping point and got me to finally get this one off the TBR!
Well. I’m not quite sure how to review this book. On the one hand, it is everything that I should have loved: a heroine who felt multidimensional and real, an intriguing, a brand new mythos that is both original and captivating, heavy comic book tone and allusions, and solid writing style.
However, I found myself struggling to get through this book, constantly putting it down for breaks, allowing myself to easily get distracted by other things, etc. Curiouser and curiouser.
Joanna Archer is the daughter of Vegas casino mogul, Xavier Archer, and sister to kind mild mannered (not to mention socially savvy) Olivia Archer. As a young teen, Joanna suffered a traumatic, life changing experience. After spending the night with her then boyfriend, sixteen year old Joanna walks home and is brutally attacked, raped, beaten and left for dead out in the Nevada desert. It is an attack that should have killed her, but somehow she was able to survive it—but she emerged from the experience a changed girl.
In true urban fantasy tradition, Joanna is a tough heroine. She cusses, she’s harsh, and she’s got jagged edges without much polish. Unlike a lot of urban fantasy heroines, Joanna Archer has good reason to be so snarly. After her traumatic teenage experience, her mother left the family (literally, while Joanna was still in the hospital). Her father, Xavier, is a monster and wants nothing to do with his embarrassing daughter. Joanna lost her life, her young love Ben Traina, and her innocence. Ever since the experience, she made a decision to toughen up and becomes proficient in ass-kicking dirty martial arts fighting. She tries very hard not to shut down emotionally and become some empty husk recluse—and makes a very important rule for herself: She will go on a date with anyone who asks.
It is on one such date that we are introduced to the danger that stalks Joanna, and how different and important she really is. On a blind dinner date with a seemingly innocuous banker type, Joanna’s life changes yet again as her date reveals himself as an agent of shadow. He ‘scents’ Joanna and lets her scent him as well—before trying to kill her at the table. She is able to fight him off, and with the help of the police (who have been tailing the guy), her would-be murderer is arrested. Joanna’s old flame Ben Traina is the cop working on the case, and the two of them immediately reconnect. It is clear that there will never be anyone else for either of them, and after all the years apart, they still are very much in love.
Meanwhile, other aspects of Joanna’s personal life start falling apart. Her nasty monster of a father reveals that from an anonymous tip he has had himself and Joanna tested—and that he is not Joanna’s biological father. Since they have never gotten along, Xavier cuts the troublesome burden off and will have no more to do with her. Joanna’s empathetic sister (or rather, half-sister) Olivia is shocked and hurt by the revelation, and tells Joanna that no matter what they are always going to be sisters. She tells Jo to come over to her apartment that evening so she can pick up her birthday present.
That evening, after some sisterly bonding and character establishment, tragedy hits again. The criminal the police caught, Jo’s blind date, escapes and attacks again…and Olivia is killed in the fight. Joanna is spared, but only with the help of some unknown, strange people who claim to be agents of the light.
Everything changes for Joanna. To cover her sister’s death and as an act of self preservation, Joanna undergoes radical surgery to BECOME Olivia and assume her identity. Turns out that each superhuman being (agents of light and shadow both) undergo metamorphoses—Joanna’s final transformation and entrance into her final life cycle occurred on the night her sister died—and now she has come in full to her superhuman powers and abilities. She can ‘see’ with her new incredible gift of scenting. Plus, she has Wolverine-style regenerative properties.
But, in the words from the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
In the Sign of the Zodiac universe, there are two sides to the coin: agents of light, and agents of shadow. On both sides there are 12 agents representing each zodiac sign, each the mirror opposite of the other. There is a Light Archer, there is a Shadow Archer. Each major city or area has its own zodiac troops; naturally Las Vegas is an important location. Joanna is not just any Archer—she is what legends foretold as the Kairos—the first agent of the New Zodiac, who is equal parts light and shadow, and has the ability to choose sides. Because of the Shadow in her, the other Light Zodiac members do not trust her—she has a near death experience when just trying to enter the Light Secret Hideout.
Like a young Anakin Skywalker, Joanna Archer is very important indeed.
Right off the bat, this book has all the makings of a gripping, fantastic series. Writing this plot summary, I feel like I should have instantly been swept off my feet and enthralled with Ms. Pettersson’s world. There are numerous comic book allusions—in fact, all of the Zodiac lore is chronicled and immortalized in comic books. There are scenes where the comics literally come to life, immediately bringing to mind classics like Creepshow, and other cool shoutouts along the way (Lost Boys Frog Brothers FTW!).
So…why do I feel less than completely impressed?
Certainly, Ms. Pettersson’s universe doesn’t lack originality. I loved this new take on Urban Fantasy, departing from the usual haunts of vamps, weres, zombies, etc. It isn’t because I don’t like her characters, because Joanna is fully fleshed out, and has the right blend of toughness and vulnerability—especially after she has undergone her transformation as Olivia. It isn’t the plotting either—the story isn’t slow at all, as there is a multitude of activity going on. There is a whole lot of darkness and heartache in this book, but it ‘felt’ right. It made sense, and it was handled well, not as some kind of way to exploit the heartstrings.
No, I can’t really find any fault in the book. I guess when it comes down to it, the book just lacked IT. You know? That extra spark, that oomph that sucks you in and won’t let go until you are clawing at the last page, excited to finally finish but desperate for more.
It’s kind of like that fundamentally solid basketball player that does a great job, but lacks the extra zing that makes them a bonafide superstar—say, the literary equivalent of Mehmet Okur or Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Ms. Pettersson is a technician. She hits all the right notes, is in the right place at the right time. I’m not giving up on her or this series because it does have great promise…and maybe becoming a superstar baller is something that can come with time and training. She certainly has all the tools at her disposal.
Notable Quotes/Parts: In keeping with Light and Shadow…at the beginning of the story, Joanna’s date and interaction with Ben Traina is sweet and touching. Both characters have already been through so much and have lost so much of themselves, and even at such an early section of the story to see the both of them together is beautiful.
Of course, after that very brief honeymoon period, things get less pretty.
On the other side, the section where Joanna embraces the Shadow within her and takes it out on the traitor to the Zodiac troop…it’s pretty nasty. And ballsy of Ms. Pettersson to have a heroine who is NOT just your typical good guy with a bruised heart but impeccable morals. A little bit of the dirty, more slippery values system works just fine here.
Additional Thoughts: I almost feel that this book would make a better comic than a full length written novel. Maybe it will be in the works one day, should the series gain a large enough following.
One last thing—I love the setting of Vegas for the story. Not just the shiny pretty tourist Vegas, but the underbelly of the glamorous city, filled with depravity and hopelessness and perversion. I was not surprised to see that Ms. Pettersson herself is a Las Vegas native, but I was surprised to see that she was an honest to goodness Vegas Showgirl—from the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana!
Verdict: Torn. The story is highly original and written well enough, even if it does lack the sizzle. I’m not giving up on Ms. Pettersson yet, I have book 2 on my TBR, waiting for me.
Rating: 6 Good, Recommend with Reservations
Reading Next: A Fistful of Charms (The Hollows book 4) by Kim Harrison