Born Under a Bad Sign: Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Olivia Taylor-Jones has everything a beautiful young socialite could want. Her well-to-do family, though clouded by the early death of her father, affords her endless luxury and comfort. Her charming fiancé has his own swimming pool full of money and growing political aspirations to match. Her profession is light enough to not be intrusive, but charitable enough to make her look like a shining example of womanhood. She’s also bored and aimless, which means it’s the perfect time for something unexpectedly awful to happen. In her case, she and the rest of the tabloid-obsessed world discover her real parents are infamous serial killers Pamela and Todd Larsen, and that her adoptive parents were awarded custody after her birth parents were arrested.

To rub salt in her wounds, her adoptive mother flees to Europe to cope with the revelations, an act Olivia—aka Eden Larsen—interprets as abandonment. When the man she loves pushes her away to protect his upcoming campaign, she cuts all ties and goes into hiding, albeit poorly. Several life-threatening experiences later, Olivia winds up in Cainsville, Illinois, a small town in the middle of nowhere practically dripping with dark secrets. Nothing in the township is what it seems, and everyone knows more than they should about things that go bump in the night.

Shortly after her arrival in Cainsville, Olivia acquires a possibly hexed apartment, nosy neighbors, a crappy waitressing job at the local diner, hallucinations and/or mystic visions, and an imposing if slightly terrifying defense attorney. The latter, Gabriel Walsh, attaches himself to Olivia by convincing her she needs his help sorting out her familial issues. But mostly he just wants the money Pamela Larsen refuses to pay him for failing to win her appeal a few years back.

Pamela, meanwhile, is claiming not only were she and Todd framed for the murders, but that even if they had killed those people they certainly couldn’t have killed the last couple, because reasons. She guilt-trips Olivia into investigating her supposed crimes, and Olivia and Gabriel scheme each other into doing favors for one another for the rest of the book. Turns out, it’s not just Cainsvillians who are riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas.

Omens wants to be Twin Peaks, but can’t make it past Picket Fences. It doesn’t help that the world and characters Armstrong has created are very clearly urban fantasy with a hefty dose of paranormal romance, but Armstrong seems intent on writing a thriller with almost coincidental supernatural elements. A reader looking for urban fantasy will be disappointed by the relative absence of magic, the paranormal romance habitué will wonder where all the smex and schmoop went, and the mystery fanatic will solve the Criminal Minds-esque plot relatively quickly then be annoyed with all the magic talk masquerading as red herrings. As a huge fan of all three genres, the book felt diluted at its best, disjointed at its worst.

What little romance there is seems more like a relationship of convenience; Olivia and Gabriel are the only vaguely magical characters who are close in age and attractiveness. The obligatory love triangle will probably turn up in the next book or two, depending on when the other attractive mate introduced midway through Book 1 decides to make his move. That being said, Gabriel and Olivia make for an interesting partnership, both as friends and as possible potential lovers. They are intriguing characters if a little trope-y. Think of Gabriel as a more laconic Eric Northman (which makes Biker Boy Alcide and Rich Fiancé an even more boring Bill Compton). Olivia is clever in a strategic sense, though she still needs to learn to apply her thoughtfulness to her own life and past. I’m dying to know just exactly what Gabriel is, although I suppose I should be more concerned about the truth about Olivia.

Given that Olivia and Gabriel spend more time outside Cainsville than in it, I’m not sure what the point of the town is supposed to be. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for her to be in Cainsville in Book 1, except as an easy means of delivering exposition. I assume the rest of the series will focus more on the town’s denizens and Olivia’s place therein. As it is, the book suffers from a moderate case infodump-itis. Most of the secrets are revealed when Olivia says, “So what’s the deal with X?” and someone else responds with, “Let me tell you X’s entire life story over the next two pages.” The only time Olivia is allowed to figure something out on her own is when one of the other characters refuses to give her key information, so she comes up with a plausible though unsubstantiated answer, then another character tells her she’s wrong and here’s what really happened. Rinse, repeat.

The biggest issue I had with this book was that nothing really happens. I mean, there’s a basic storyline, several dramatic moments, and a fraught climax, but it’s all so… In between the bits of action and even smaller bits of magic, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, to-ing and fro-ing, plotting and rethinking. It’s like 400+ pages of prologue. The first book in the series is a whole lot of explanation and not enough payoff. It suffers from both not having quite enough worldbuilding for a multi-book series, while also having so many veiled conspiracies to fill half a dozen books. Contradictory, I know. And also kind of a letdown for me. I’d never read Kelley Armstrong before, although I’d wanted to. I’ve heard her favorably compared to Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris (say what you will about True Blood, but Harris is an entertaining author…seriously, check out her Lily Bard and Harper Connelly series). I saw hints of those comparisons, but Armstrong makes an obvious attempt to distance the Cainsville series from her paranormal romance/urban fantasy compatriots.

Omens is well written, and Armstrong has a writing style and authorial voice I find appealing. She has a fine ear for dialogue and internal narration. I also really enjoyed the way she slipped in interstitials written from the perspectives of various townsfolk. It distinguishes the novel from other fare in of the same ilk, while also breaking up the monotony of the first person narrative. It’s a decent ground floor novel. I have high hopes for the rest of the series. It was solid B+ material, and I strongly suspect further installations will improve in quality. When you read Omens, remember it’s a mystery novel first and foremost, and a paranormal romance/urban fantasy second. I didn’t love it like I thought I would, but I did like it. The first book didn’t quite stick the landing, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the overall reading experience. Despite its faults, at least it never fails to be entertaining.

Omens is available August 20th from Dutton.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.


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