Olivia Taylor-Jones is back and just as kick-ass as ever in Visions, Kelley Armstrong’s bewitching second entry in her Cainsville series. When we first met Liv, her whole life was shattered with the revelation that her wealthy parents had adopted her after her bio parents were sent to jail as notorious serial killers. Her mundane world got a helluva lot more magical once she realized her weird little superstitions were really omens and portents of death and despair. Suddenly, the former socialite found herself at the center of an epic, timeless battle between Team Fate and Team Free Will.
After the deadly events of Omens, Liv, formerly Eden Larsen, takes a part time gig as an investigator with Gabriel Walsh, her hulking defense attorney. Ostensibly they’re looking into her parents’ convictions – the Larsens maintain their innocence, the courts say otherwise, and the evidence is circumstantial and ambiguous – but it wouldn’t be Cainsville if there weren’t a million plays and counter plays roiling around under the surface.
When a dead girl starts appearing and disappearing around Liv, she and Gabriel set themselves to uncovering her identity. But figuring out who the villains and heroes are may prove a bigger task than they’re prepared for. Ricky the sexy MBA biker, Patrick the paranormal romance writer, Rose the psychic, James the ex-fiancé, and the shadowy force behind the murder, push and pull Liv in every direction but the one she wants. It’s up to her to sort out the truth from the lies, distractions, and sinister subterfuge.
The central mystery of who the dead girl is and who killed her isn’t very subtle (anyone paying attention can spot the final twists from a mile away). The mystery may be the fulcrum around which revolves the plot, but it’s also secondary to the main focus: the characters. In a lot of ways, the Cainsville series reminds me of Charlaine Harris’ non-Sookie Stackhouse books, especially her most recent one, Midnight Crossroad. The plots are fun but slight, and the characters are engaging and enthralling.
Watching Liv and Love Interest #1’s relationship grow beyond steamy romance into genuine companionship, and her and Love Interest #2’s mutual nervous distrust unfreeze just enough to become grudging acceptance more than makes the up for the lackluster mystery. The romance is all kinds of spicy. Better yet, it’s completely consensual. Love Interest #1 and Liv respect each other’s choices and only make moves if the other verbally agrees to it. There’s no shoving her against a wall and “convincing” her she wants it, or emotional manipulation crudely disguised as romance. Speaking as someone who reads her fair share of romance and paranormal romance, Armstrong’s version is rare and much needed.
Equally as well written is her complicated friendship (or is it something more?) with Love Interest #2. They respect and trust each other more than they’re willing to admit, and even when they get furious with one another, they never descend into the muck of vile insults or cruel taunts. Their frustration with each other is self-inflicted, caused by their inability to tell the honest, painful truth. Love Interest #3 takes a sharp left turn (for reasons he may or may not have any control over) from what he seemed like in his brief appearance in Omens, and becomes the living embodiment of all the terrible things Love Interest #1 and #2 are not.
I guess what I’m saying is the characters are there to live their lives; the plot just happens to get in the way of that. There’s far too much of the Chosen One trope for my taste. If you go with it, the story itself is engrossing and fun, but it falls apart under scrutiny. Fortunately, it moves so quickly that there isn’t much time for contemplation. The pace keeps the reader on their toes. No wallowing or meandering tangents for Armstrong. The main mystery isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but the B and C plots have a lot more going for them, mostly because they tie into the more interesting overarching storyline.The first book suffered from not enough worldbuilding, a error wonderfully rectified here. By expanding the stage, the characters have more room to grow and interact, and the series-spanning arc can take on greater import with life-threatening consequences.
Armstrong is a great writer, hands down. Normally, first person narratives bore the pants off me, mostly because they’re massively overused in fantasy. I’d hazard at least 80% of the fiction I’ve read in the last year was in first person. When done right, it can be riotous fun. When done wrong, you’re stuck in a 400 page cage with the world’s most boring narrator. As endearing as Liv is, Armstrong wisely gives the reader a break with third person interstitials that focus on other characters. Sometimes that backfires – like when we have to wait for Liv to finally catch up with the rest of us – but most of the time it gives the reader hints and clues that adds a new shade to her limited perspective.
Looking back, I think I was a wee bit harsh in my review of Omens. Basically, I called it a discount bin Twin Peaks, and said that fans of murder mysteries, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy would be sorely disappointed by their scarcity in a book that was supposed to be all three. But I also thought further installments would improve in quality, and Visions can attest to that. Like the first book, the sequel relies too much on infodumps, misdirects, and half answers. On the other hand, I was so interested in the characters I could barely put Visions down. Frankly, I enjoyed the hell out of it. If Omens was all prologue, Visions is an excellent first chapter, and I cannot wait for the next installment.
Visions is available now from Penguin.
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.