Dead Heat is the fourth, newest novel-length installment in the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. Briggs is a solid name in the modern urban fantasy field. She can tell an engaging, compelling story, and she has created a really interesting, well planned world, full of politics (both magical and mundane), power plays and strong, likeable characters, which grow and change plausibly with every new installment. I really enjoy Mercy Thompson series, to the point of having all the books in the same ACE edition (hardcovers mostly) on my shelves. And that says a lot, considering the limited space I have there as well as my addiction to Kindle. I never got hooked on Alpha and Omega novels though – they are not enough action-packed and definitely too much introspectively romantic, wish-fulfilling and politically correct for my barbaric tastes. That said, let’s start from the beginning.
Those who read Briggs probably know that Alpha and Omega novels are set in the same world as Mercy Thompson series – they just follow a different set of characters, mainly Charles Cornick, the younger son of the Marrok, the head of all US werewolves, and Anna Cornick, Charles’ wife.
We have known Charles from Mercy’s point of view, as a person who scares even her, and this really does take some serious effort. He is tall, enigmatic bordering on unreadable, highly mysterious, has his own shaman magic and he takes care of all the dirty work the Marrok has. Which is, as you can expect, quite a lot.
The main idea behind A&O series is to give Charles his own voice and show him for what he really is – a Native American giant killer werewolf, yes, but with a heart of gold. He is a sweet (!), loving and deeply caring creature, who has become his father’s enforcer simply because there was no one else who could have done the job as well as he does. In his heart of hearts, Charles would have probably been most happy as a gardener (although cutting the dead roses could cause him a severe case of trauma) or a kindergarten teacher. But his feelings of responsibility and ingrained sense of duty to his fellow werewolves compel him to protect the others by killing the bad guys. Even if he cries at night afterwards and has problems with expressing his emotions. Yup. I’m serious.
But this sugary version of Charles is not the biggest issue I have with Alpha and Omega series, and with Dead Heat in particular. Charles may be a walking saint, but he pales in comparison with his wife Anna. Anna is an Omega – a wolf that has a calming effect on other wolves, that stays beside the rigid hierarchy of werewolf packs, that can question decisions of an Alpha. There are only two known Omegas in the world, which makes her a rare gem indeed. Rarer still for the outstanding qualities of character that Anna possesses. She is compassionate, loving, independent, intelligent, responsible, strong but not competitive, she understands everything and tries to protect the weaker at all costs. A living and breathing miracle, and we hear this a lot. So it should come as no surprise that she repeatedly saves Charles, the second most powerful wolf in the US, from deadly danger. Every freaking time – Dead Heat is the fourth. She was saved by Charles only once – in the first novella.
Still, even this I could swallow, albeit with serious difficulties. But the main problem is that this all is said, not shown. It is shoveled into the reader’s head without Mercy mercy, again and again, as something somebody said or thought. We learn what they are not by the deeds of the main characters, but by someone commenting on what they did and why. We are not spared even for a moment. It’s very different from Mercy Thompson books, where we learn about the characters and their values or motivation through what they do, not what is said about them. And let me tell you, it’s not a change for better.
There are also several smaller sins that Dead Heat commits. One of them is horses. Ok, let’s start with a disclaimer: I like horses. I really do. I think they are wonderful. But if I wanted to read a book on horses, I would pick a book on horses. Not Patricia Briggs. So it came as quite a surprise to me that Dead Heat IS a book on horses after all. It’s full of horses. Of their names, lineage, gait, color, length of mane, withers, character quirks… you name it. It’s there. Multiple times.
And, last but not least, the storyline is weak. Sadly, terribly, weak. It has holes in its logic bigger than the Yucatan crater. Worse, it does not engage the reader the way previous Briggs’ novels did. I was simply bored. The evil was evil because the main characters said so. There was maybe one mildly powerful scene in the whole book, and it took place at the beginning. Half of the book was about horses… Have I mentioned it before? I’m not going to spill any beans here, but I can’t resist saying that the logic of Briggs’ fae is apparently beyond human understanding. If I were a big bad fae, I would definitely choose a different modus operandi than kidnapping one child a year and putting a changeling in its place, so that their parents won’t notice. Just saying.
As an aside thought, I find it intriguing that children and changelings have recently become such a trend in fantasy – first Aaronovitch, now Briggs, I wonder who will be next? I sincerely hope they will make better job of it than Briggs and Aaronovitch did.