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Hellbent – Cherie Priest

Hellbent – Cherie Priest

Review by David Stonehouse,
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Hellbent is the second adventure for Cherie Priest’s vampire thief heroine Raylene Pendle, but don’t worry if you missed the first book, Bloodshot, because some quick and cheerful exposition will soon have you up to speed. Frankly, it’s all such breakneck breathless fun that you’ll soon be on Amazon grabbing a copy of it to catch up anyway. But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Our heroine/narrator is Raylene Pendle, an hundred year old vampire also known as Cheshire Red (her criminal identity), and she’s a brilliant creation. She narrates the story in a conversational noir style, full of endearing anecdotes, details and digressions, all told with plenty of wit and undercut with black humour. Cherie Pierce’s take on vampires keeps them very human and this is what makes Raylene such a likeable narrator. Sure, when the monster comes out, she’s as fast, tough and frighteningly dangerous as we need her to be, but most of the time the vampire lurks behind a very human face. In fact she is so normal most of the time that you almost forget what she is. And then a sudden pitch black comment, brutal thought or shocking revelation from her past comes out of the blue and reminds you that yes, she is a killer, she does drink blood and her moral compass really doesn’t point the same way ours does. She’s a complex creation, clever and brave, by turns emotional and brutal and full of quirky OCD ticks and oddities that give her real authenticity and depth.

Raylene isn’t alone, she works from her lair in Seattle accompanied by cheerfully eccentric selection of friends and companions. There’s Ian, another vampire, hiding out from the politics of his vampire House in San Francisco. He’s been blinded in a top secret military experiment (see Bloodshot for details) and in the cut-throat vampire world a weakened vampire won’t last long on his own. Then there’s Adrian, the hard as nails drag queen who really is a brilliant invention – the perfect foil to Raylene’s razor sharp thief. On top of that there’s also a pair of orphaned kids, Domino and Pepper, who Raylene took under her wing after finding them squatting in one of her properties. Before too long a kitten gets added to the mix too. The interplay of these characters and their bizarre relationships gives the book a great big heart and much of its quirky humour.

The plot, or rather plots, are suitably mental. The ball is set in motion by Raylene being hired to steal some magical bones which are extremely rare and valuable because they could be used by someone skilled in the dark arts to pull off some very powerful magic. The bones are very specific and the source of a lot of cheap laughs but I won’t spoil the fun, you can find out for yourself. Needless to say, what looks like a simple job turns out to be anything but, with a blood-soaked body a deranged sorceress turning up flinging lightning bolts about. On top of that there are vampire issues to deal with that require Raylene to visit the vampire Houses in other cities, playing at tricky politics and trying to protect her friend. There’s also a missing person who needs to be found and a murder that needs to be solved. It’s a complicated mix but Priest juggles all her balls skilfully and deftly keeps the whole thing rolling happily along. It’s a well written book, entertaining and stylish, which never lets up its grip on the reader until the final page is turned.

As far as the mythology stuff is concerned Priest manages it all with accomplished ease. There are the vampires obviously, and the popular conventions are maintained. They die in sunlight. They are slightly psychic and have extraordinary strength and speed. They group together in Houses and have their own hierarchies and rituals that must be observed. They also maintain human lackeys called ghouls who serve them in exchange for the hope that they might become vampires themselves. There is magic of the elemental sort where skilled practitioners are able to manipulate the world around them and, although we don’t meet them, it is accepted that pretty much every mythical creature you’ve ever heard of is real and out there somewhere. Priest’s neat trick is that she conveys the detail of the supernatural world in a very understated way. There’s none of the lengthy exposition and explanation that often kills the pace in fantasy novels, instead it’s just there in the background and feels like a perfectly normal part of Raylene’s world.

The only real gripe isn’t with Cherie Priest at all; it’s with the way her novels are packaged. I was very wary when the boss-man handed me this novel. Both Bloodshot and Hellbent look like they are aimed at the pulpy end of the teen fiction market and the blurb doesn’t help either, as it trivialises the characters and plots making them seem rather ridiculous. This is a shame because it masks the book’s wit, intelligence, imagination and very definitely adult sensibility, and may well have the effect of giving the wrong impression and putting off potential fans. These books fall into the same broad ballpark as novels like Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse stories and would certainly benefit from that sort of grown up, sexy, adult-oriented promotion.

Hellbent is a great book – a riproaring page turner that breathes fresh life and ideas into a genre that sometimes feels a little stagnant and ‘done to death’. If you have any sort of taste for vampires, mysteries and supernatural adventures you’ll be hooked. Let’s hope Cherie Priest has got a lot more Raylene Pendle capers up her sleeve.

TITAN BOOKS Released: Out Now £7.99

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