I had read Diana Pharaoh Francis’ Path of Fate series when it was originally published, and really enjoyed those novels, so I decided last week that I’d see what she’s been up to lately. I thought her Horngate Witches series looked interesting, so I bought the two that have been released. Below is my review of the first book in the series, Bitter Night, and I’ll review the second one, Crimson Wind, within the next few weeks.
In Bitter Night, Max is Shadowblade Prime for Giselle, the witch-bitch who was her best friend and roommate in college. Giselle is coven leader for the Horngate Coven near Missoula, Montana. Needless to say, Max did not become a Shadowblade by choice 30 years ago. Giselle tricked her one night when Max was drunk and thought she was answering hypothetical what-if questions, kind of like Truth-or-Dare. Imagine her surprise when she woke up a month later to discover witches are real. Giselle is a powerful witch who not only bound Max but turned her into the ultimate night-fighting super weapon – one with super strength who will never grow old, heals amazingly quickly and makes a great guinea pig for practicing torture techniques on. Witches rate very high on the empathy scale.
Max holds a huge grudge against Giselle for commandeering her life and turning her into a warrior slave. She’s determined to seek revenge despite the compulsion spells that torture her if she thinks an uncharitable thought about Giselle. Yes, Max is bitter and has a huge chip on her shoulder but there’s a lot more to her than that, which is why she’s a good protagonist. Not always likable by any means – I wanted to kick her butt sometimes – but underneath the hard exterior is a champion for the underdog and a real softie. Let’s just say she has some trust issues.
When Bitter Night opens, Max, Giselle, and the Horngate coven’s Shadowblades and Sunspears are all headed for San Diego where witches are gathering for a rare Conclave. Giselle has sent Max ahead on a side trip to Julian, a quaint town filled with apple orchards in the mountains northeast of San Diego. A vision had shown Giselle that something horrific could happen and she hopes Max can forestall it. The touchy part is Max will be invading another witch’s territory so she’s under strict instructions to not be seen.
“The tense uneasiness in Giselle’s voice triggered a cascade of alarms inside Max. It was like a switch was flipped inside her as her compulsion spells took over. Her anger cooled instantly and every one of her magically heightened senses strained to hard alertness.”
At the location, Max comes across a human family’s remains and a Blue Hag from the Scottish highlands, who’s being tortured by red caps for no apparent reason. It’s pretty clear the red caps are responsible for the massacre. To save the Blue Hag, Max can’t remain unseen as ordered but she feels compelled to save the innocent hag.
“’There will be war. It stands already on the threshold. Many, many will die. The world will be remade. Soon you will stand at a crossroads. You can choose fire’ – the [Blue Hag’s] staff prodded Max in the stomach – ‘or you can choose blood.’…’Be warned, either path will have a cost. Lives will be saved and lives will be lost.’”
While helping the Blue Hag, Max comes face to face with Alexander, Shadowblade Prime for the San Diego coven’s head witch, Selange, and feels an instant attraction. Thanks to the Blue Hag’s intervention, Max has him in a position to kill him so she can prevent anyone knowing she was there, but she can’t do it. The result: She’s busted and not in a good way.
“A few more seconds, a half a minute maybe, and [Alexander] he’d be free. It didn’t matter if she [Max] got away before that. He’d seen her. They both would be at tomorrow night’s Conclave – every witch was required to bring her Shadowblade Prime. Now or then, there would be a showdown.”
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – lust at first sight, right? It’s clear it’s more than that even in the beginning. This is not going to be an easy one folks, if it happens at all, because both people have too much baggage for that. In fact the tension between Max and Alexander could be cut with a chain saw.
I don’t want to give away too much so the only other thing I’m going to tell you is that there is a class of demi-god-like creatures called The Guardians who use Angels as messengers. They send those Angels to both Selange and Giselle, and probably a lot of other coven leaders, to make a deal – something unheard of in the past.
“The angel’s red eyes shifted, skewering him. Heat blossomed in Alexander’s skull. The angel smiled in a not unfriendly way, then dropped his eyes. Alexander blinked, drawing a quiet breath, his legs shaking. He knew angels had dreadful power, though he’d never before encountered one…Just who was powerful enough to hold [the Angel’s] his leash? Who was powerful enough to use him as a mere messenger? And more important, what the hell kind of trouble had Selange got into?”
The Horngate Witches series provides a very interesting world, constructed in a creative way that I’ve never seen before. I also liked the way the normal first series novel background/world-building info was integrated in Bitter Night in a way that felt natural. It’s got lots of action and unpredictability, and the writing is excellent. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a bit of sexual tension in the mix.
I enjoyed Bitter Night so much that I immediately dove into its sequel, Crimson Wind, and devoured that one too. Now I’m counting the days until the 3rd novel is released. I love finding new series this good! Enjoy!
If you’ve read Bitter Night, or any other novels by Diana Pharaoh Francis, we’d love to get your comments. We’d also love to hear your comments about this review.
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